"Big Four" Highlights


The Imagination Syllabus

5 books that helped lead an atheist home to the Church

By Holly Ordway

Until I was 31, I was an atheist, convinced that faith was nothing but superstitious nonsense, a nice story that Christians told to make themselves feel better. But by the end of 2006, I’d gone from snarky atheist to newly-baptized Christian. Today I’m a Catholic and director of a cultural apologetics program at Houston Baptist University.

How did I get here? It had a lot to do with my imagination! I’ve always loved to read, and books played an important role in my journey of faith. Let me share with you a few of the books and authors that proved particularly important in my life.

My family wasn’t hostile to Christianity, but when I was a child, we never went to church and there wasn’t even a Bible in the house. However, I did read C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia – wonderful fantasy stories that are Christ-centered and infused with the light and beauty of the Christian worldview. I loved the Narnia books, and recognized that there was something real and true about them, though at the time I didn’t know what. A seed had been planted.

At college, I easily accepted the secular view of the world. I assumed that science explained everything and Christianity was a historical curiosity which educated, intelligent people could safely ignore. Even so, as an English major I read a lot of great Christian writers. One in particular captured my imagination: the Catholic poet Gerard Manley Hopkins. He gave me a glimpse that “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.” I didn’t follow Hopkins’ lead then, but he would, in time, help draw me toward Christ.

In my twenties, I became more convinced and hostile as an atheist, especially since the little exposure I had to Christianity was in distorted, crude media representations or obnoxious street preaching. But the seeds of grace planted in my childhood imagination were starting to germinate. I decided to write my doctoral dissertation on fantasy literature, focusing on the great Catholic author J.R.R. Tolkien and his epic The Lord of the Rings. Even though at the time I believed that human life had no inherent meaning and that there was no God, I found that Tolkien’s grace-infused, deeply Christian vision in this great novel resonated with me. As I realized later, its tale of sacrifice, sorrow and unexpected joy gave me an image of the death and Resurrection of Christ – and made that image meaningful.

A few years later, as a professor of English literature, I found myself re-reading the great Christian poets and finally realizing that I’d been dismissing their faith too easily. John Donne, George Herbert and (once again!) Hopkins were intelligent, thoughtful men, not afraid to face the realities of pain and suffering. Their faith wasn’t separable from the beauty and artistry of their poetry. Maybe, I thought, just maybe, the idea of faith was more complex than I thought it was. I decided to ask some questions. Why did people believe in God? Could any of this be true?

I began to ask questions. Fortunately, as it happened, my fencing coach (of all people) was a serious Christian, and he was willing to talk with me and to recommend books that would help me explore these topics. One of the most important of these was C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity. Here I discovered a clear, brilliantly argued, vivid presentation of core Christian ideas. Lewis helped me see that our moral sense points toward the reality of God; that faith is not contrary to reason; that the Christian view of the world is consistent and logical; and that the Christian life is something much more complex, terrifying, and exciting than I’d ever guessed.

Books can help us with the New Evangelization, giving us a means to share our faith in a respectful, inviting way. “I really enjoyed this book – I thought you might enjoy it too,” or “I’d love to hear what you think,” might plant a seed or start a conversation! There’s a lot more to my story, which I tell in full in my memoir Not God’s Type: An Atheist Academic Lays Down Her Arms (Ignatius Press, 2014). I hope that it helps you, like all of the books that I mentioned, to better imagine the impact that books can have on your journey of faith.

Holly Ordway is a professor of English and program director in apologetics at Houston Baptist University. She is the author of Not God’s Type: An Atheist Academic Lays Down Her Arms (Ignatius Press, 2014).