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Stories, Literature, and Sharing the Gospel (With Dr. Holly Ordway)

Dr. Holly Ordway headshot

According to the Pew Research Center, around 28% of US adults are religiously unaffiliated, or “Nones” as they are called. As our culture grows increasingly indifferent to religion, it can be harder to reach them with the Gospel.


This week on Family Policy Matters, host Traci DeVette Griggs welcomes Dr. Holly Ordway to discuss the growing indifference to religion and how stories and literature can be used to share the Gospel. Dr. Ordway is the visiting Professor of Apologetics at Houston Christian University, the Professor of Faith and Culture at the Word On Fire Institute, and the author of the book Tolkien’s Faith: A Spiritual Biography.

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Family Policy Matters
Transcript: Stories, Literature, and Sharing the Gospel (With Dr. Holly Ordway)

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Thanks for joining us this week for Family Policy Matters. The fastest growing so called religious group in the United States are the Nones, n o n e s, those who do not associate with any religious affiliation. The Pew Research Center says that number has reached 28% of Americans in 2024. Well, understanding this new reality that many people are simply indifferent to religion should cause us to rethink how we share the hope that is within us. Dr. Holly Ordway is with us today to share her insights on how literature can help us do that. Ordway is a visiting Professor of Apologetics at Houston Christian University and the Professor of Faith and Culture at the Word on Fire Institute. She’s also the author of the newly published Tolkien’s Faith: A Spiritual Biography. Dr. Holly Ordway, welcome to Family Policy Matters.

HOLLY ORDWAY: It’s a pleasure to be here. Thank you.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Alright, so I think if I asked 10 Different people this question, I’d get 10 different answers. But why do you think so many people today are indifferent to faith and religion?

HOLLY ORDWAY: Well, I think you’ll get 10 different answers, because there are lots of answers to that question. And it really depends on the circumstances a particular person is in why they don’t have any sense of spiritual life. But I think a lot of it has to do with the general drift of our culture, because we have, as a culture, moved away from recognizing the reality of the spiritual world and shifted into a more materialist kind of approach, a pragmatic utilitarian approach. And that means that a lot of people who’ve grown up never having been exposed even to the idea that religion is anything except a sort of personal quirk, or a thing you can do if you want to feel better, or, or a cultural thing. And if they have never really considered it, it’s obviously not going to have a grip on them. So people have drifted because they haven’t had that deeper mooring that, you know, 100 years ago, even people who disbelieved, knew what they were disbelieving, and that’s not the case now.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: What do we do in response to this? So we know that Jesus’s last words on this earth were a directive to make disciples of all nations, and that clearly starts at home and in our own communities. So how does this new reality change how we would fulfill the Great Commission?

HOLLY ORDWAY: It really starts not just in our own communities, but in our own spiritual lives, because it’s very easy for even quite faithful Christians to be at some level, I’m going to say functional atheists or functional agnostics. And that’s going to sound kind of terrible. What I mean is that a lot of Christians who do you have a sincere faith, also have a lot of implicit assumptions about the way the world works that are actually part and parcel of a secular materialist culture, and it tends to erode their witness. And it tends to make it more difficult to live out the faith and to articulate that faith and to be consistent in the way that we live out our faith. Because the most, the most effective witness really comes from a fully integrated Christian life. And I think that’s one of the reasons, for instance, two of my great literary heroes, C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien both able to do that witness in different ways, C.S. Lewis very publicly, because they were both deeply faithful men who had their faith totally integrated into their lives. So I think the very, very first step is to do a, really a deeper process of discipleship to make sure, okay, do we really know not just what we believe, but why we believe what we believe? And are we allowing that really to shape the way that we live, possibly in some ways that might challenge us or maybe might make us slightly uncomfortable? And that’s first of all going to prepare us better to share the faith. But I think it will also help us to be more compassionate and more understanding to the people who are indifferent. Because if we are ready to look inward and say, what are the assumptions that I kind of want to buy into, what are the aspects of our culture that I shouldn’t go along with, but I feel it’s easy to drift with them. If we can really confront those things ourselves, we’re going to be able to reach out to people who don’t believe in a way of saying we are all in this together. Let’s journey together. As opposed to we know everything you poor benighted person know nothing. That sense of shared journey and acknowledgement of the difficulties is going to make our witness more effective.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: So you mentioned these assumptions that basically, if we have a lot of them, it makes us a functional atheist or agnostic. I really love that you said that because I think we see that quite often. Is there an assumption that is most common? Give us an example.

HOLLY ORDWAY: I would say, assumptions about prayer are pretty common. And I do some work in my local parish with, you know, kids who are doing the preparation for confirmation. And you know, with college students, and one of the great assumptions is that prayer means asking God to give me something. And that answered prayer means God gives me what I asked for. And so God becomes kind of a giant sort of vending machine, you know, you insert the spiritual coins of your prayers, and you get what you want. And if you don’t get what you want, it means the machine doesn’t have what you need or is broken. It’s a very sort of mechanistic view of prayer. And a lot of the graduate students I’ve worked with at HCU who were up in the apologetics program there, have gone through phases in their life where they really struggle with doubt because they had grown up with this unspoken assumption that prayer means asking God for things and answered prayer means you get what you want. So when they pray for something, like a loved one has cancer, you know, grandma’s dying, I pray for grandma to get better, and grandma doesn’t get better she dies. I want such and such, and it’s really meaningful, it’s a good thing, and I don’t get it. What does that say about the reality of God and the loving nature of God, if that’s how we understand prayer. So a lot of, unfortunately, a lot of people, a lot of young people, especially, are actually turned away from the faith because they either have a traumatic experience and they feel like God doesn’t hear me because he’s not giving me what I want. He’s not answering my prayer. Or they somehow intuit that this is a very shallow view. And they might not be able to articulate that. But they see, this is just the old man in the sky. That’s not, how can that God exist. And so what we need to do is to kind of have a deeper understanding of prayer, which includes thanksgiving and petitionary prayer for others and confession and adoration, and recognize that God always answers our prayers. But in his wisdom, he doesn’t always give us what we explore, or he doesn’t always answer them on the timeline that we want, because he’s God and we’re not. And I think a lot of people, and I’ve worked with many adult apologetics students, adult again faithful Christians, who have to confront that and say, okay, when I pray, am I only asking God for things? Or am I spending time just enjoying his presence, thanking him, interacting with him, that deeper reality of prayer is actually very closely tied to a better understanding of who God is and how we relate with him. And that’s the kind of thing I mean about the faulty assumptions.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: In the introduction, we mentioned that you believe literature is a key to recapturing some of what we’ve lost here. But how?

HOLLY ORDWAY: Well that’s, that’s quite a big question. And I do have another book called Apologetics and the Christian Imagination, where I talk about that at a little bit more length. I think that the short answer is that human beings are narrative creatures. We tell stories. Stories are how we live our lives. Our lives have beginnings, middles, and ends, we naturally understand ourselves and the world around us in terms of narrative, not just facts, but narrative. And God understands this. And if we look, for instance, at the way our Lord teaches, he uses parables so often. You think about the parable of the prodigal son. You know, Jesus could have just said, God loves you, if you repent of your sins and return to Him, He will forgive you and welcome you back home. This is a true statement. But he tells the whole story of the prodigal son and the running away and the coming back and the father coming to meet him. Well, why? Because, as human beings, we are able to grasp the fullness of that a lot better when we have it embodied in characters in a situation. And there’s a sort of participatory aspect of stories. We can imagine ourselves in a different roles – the younger son, elder son, the father – and there’s always more depth. It allows us to come to understand something like God’s love in a way that maybe is abstract. If we say God the Father loves us. Stories also help us to gain meaning for things. I mean, especially in this current culture, which has been so devastated by divorce, how many of the young people particularly whom we are trying to reach, how many of them have positive associations with the word father? Some of them might have really terrible experiences, maybe abuse at the hands of fathers or father figures. So if we just say, God the Father loves you, you know, that might not be an inviting statement to people who have a very painful or fraught relationship with their earthly father. But if we see a story in which the Father is acting in a way that is genuinely loving, is something that someone can imagine wanting, of being welcomed home, it starts to get past those barriers of fear or anxiety. It starts to help them imagine, oh, maybe this kind of fatherhood, this is the real thing. Maybe it’s something different from what I’ve always experienced. So stories are really powerful in communicating the very fundamental concepts of the faith in that kind of way.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: So how can we as Christians, then use literature to bridge this gap and start conversations about our faith?

HOLLY ORDWAY: The first thing I would say is that we need to be cautious about saying use. And I know that’s difficult, because I teach how to use liturgy to do these things. But I think first we need to enjoy literature, we need to enjoy stories, we need to just be able to delight in them. Because then if we delight in them, if we’re enjoying them, then we can invite people quite naturally to say, read the story, watch this film, watch this television program that I’m enjoying, let’s enjoy it together. And then if there are themes that come up, then we can talk about them. Because, like with the Lord of the Rings. I mean, there’s so many wonderful things in Tolkien story that we can talk about in terms of the faith, you know, good and evil and suffering and self sacrifice and all of these beautiful things. But that has to emerge naturally out of we’re both enjoying the story together, as opposed to, “Here, read this book is good for you.” Eat your vegetables, right. So I think that shared love allows us to invite people to come in with us, and then it gives a, safe spaces has gotten a bit overused as a term, but a genuinely safe spaces are is a really important thing. Because it’s a it’s a radical thing to come to know the Lord, we’re asking people to totally overturn their entire life, it’s kind of a big deal. So we need to offer them a space where they can think about these ideas without the pressure of immediately, well, are you gonna accept God, or you’re gonna – hold on. But if we can read a story together, have a book group, watch the film together, we can talk about what the characters are doing. And that becomes a safe place to explore the possibilities without that personal pressure right on me to say I have to decide about this.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: You talk about the way of beauty and then there’s a phrase, I think that we’re hearing commonly the true, the good, and the beautiful. Talk about this, why is beauty something that can draw people into a conversation about Christ?

HOLLY ORDWAY: Well, this is something that Bishop Robert Barron, who is the founder of Word on Fire, the ministry that I work for, has really done a lot to unpack because goodness, truth and beauty are all characteristics of God. They’re the three transcendentals. God is perfect goodness, God is perfect beauty, God is perfect truth. But one of the things that Bishop Baron talks about is the way that in our modern age, relativism has gotten hold to the point that people are uncomfortable talking about truth. And maybe that’s not the right starting point. Eventually, we need to convince them that there is such a thing as truth. But that might not be the best place to start. Goodness, virtue, sometimes people can be a little bit put off and what they perceive as you know, moralizing or pushiness, again, we want to help people see that true goodness is fantastic. It’s what we long for. But that isn’t necessarily the best place to start. Because people might be a bit, sort of defensive about it. But beauty is something that we experience just unreservedly. We can’t help but experience it. You know, the beauty of nature, the beauty of relationships, the beauty of an enjoyable story. And that can become an entry point to say, “Okay, this is something that relates to God, but God has perfect beauty.” The very fact that we respond to beauty is because we’re made in the image of God. So that can be an opening to say, Okay, well, why do we find these things beautiful? What’s beautiful about it? You can take the Lord of the Rings. Why do we find this to be a beautiful story when there’s actually quite a lot of darkness in it, there’s a lot of suffering. Well, could it be that the beauty isn’t just the surface stuff? There’s something beautiful about Frodo self sacrificing and suffering for the sake of others? Oh, look, that has just led us towards goodness.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: We’re just about out of time. Before we go. I’m sure that people would love to hear more. So how would they do that? Where would they go to learn more about your work and to find these books that you have crafted?

HOLLY ORDWAY: They can go to my website, which is And my various books, some several books on Tolkien, and books on apologetics. You can go to Amazon or any good bookseller as they say and look up my name and several of them are published by Word on Fire. So if you go to Word on Fire’s publishing page you can find there as well. But my website, is the basic place.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: All right, Dr. Holly Ordway. Thank you so much for being with us today on Family Policy Matters.

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