When Logic and the Real World Collide

Today I had an How to Apply Logic to Arguments Part I titled “How to Apply Logic to Arguments, Part I.” In this article I provide some basic tips to consider when analyzing and developing arguments. In light of this summer’s controversies, I hope this two-part series is helpful for those who are actively engaging our culture (the second part of my article will be published on the SBTS blog shortly).



Writing a Research Paper: What’s Worked for Me

Pen PaperIt’s that time of the semester where students are faced with looming deadlines for…*scarey music*…research papers. Most students (I like to think) enjoy the learning process, but when it comes to writing a research paper, they’d rather binge watch all of the episodes of Caillou.

Writing a paper can be a daunting task, but it doesn’t have to be something you dread or avoid. There are a variety of ways you can approach writing a paper, but what got me on track and to enjoying the writing process is a method that Dr. Ted Cabal (Professor of Christian Worldview and Applied Apologetics at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) taught me when I was in my M.Div. days. I used his method throughout the remainder of my masters classes all the way through to my Ph.D. dissertation. As you begin your research process, I’d like to share with you what worked for me.

  • The obvious first step is to determine what topic you are going to research. Ironically, for some students, this is the toughest aspect of writing. Generally your professor will give you some ideas to serve as a springboard into determining your own topic. If you’re still unsure, look through what you’ve covered in class to see if anything piques your curiosity. Is there a topic that relates to an issue you’re dealing with at work or in the ministry? Is there a topic that you are completely unfamiliar with and about which you want to learn more? If all else fails, ask your professor for an idea.
  • Once you have your general topic, brainstorm a list of questions of what you want to know about a that topic. Here you don’t need to worry about whether the questions are related or not. Instead, you’re asking questions that will help guide you in the research of your topic. Once you run out of questions to ask, look at your list and chop out the questions that do not fit or are too broad.
  • With your whittled-down list of questions, write a basic outline based on your questions. This will guide the writing of the paper. Essentially, this outline will serve as the different subsections of your paper – sections that are used to support your thesis.

Now you are ready to do research.

  • Take your outline and go to big picture books (dictionaries, encyclopedias, intros, etc.) and get the big picture of your topic before going into the details. Are there terms or concepts with which you need to be familiar? What thinkers are mentioned often? Does your topic consist of sub-topics? What are competing theories regarding your topic? Modify your outline based on this research.

This is also time for you to build your bibliography. What books or articles are mentioned in the “big picture” sources you’ve read? Use these sources as your springboard into other resources that are relevant to your topic. When you are using a primary or secondary source, be sure to review that book’s bibliography and footnotes (or endnotes) for other sources you can review.

  • Now begin reading the books from the bibliography and write down the big single idea, or several ideas that hit you. Write these ideas down in your own words and cite where the idea fits in your outline. (You also need to be sure you cite the source where the idea originates as this will save you from having to hunt for the source later on.) This must relate to the outline you are using so that you know where it fits in the grand scheme of things.
  • Set a time to quit researching so that you have time to write. It is easy to get caught up in your research. If your topic interests you, you may find it easy to get lost in the research process. However, there is such a thing as too much research. If done correctly, you will have more material than you need to write. So, be sure that you set a date on which you stop researching and begin writing.
  • Writing should be the easiest part. Look at what you found in your research. What contains the most information and interest in regard to your outline? Adjust your outline to what you have found. You can get creative in this step in thinking about how to present things in the paper.

You may find that the further you research your topic, the more you may have to adjust your initial thesis. This is okay and, in my opinion (as well as Dr. Cabal), a sign of good research. Your research should guide your writing. So, make adjustments to your outline and thesis as you write. You don’t want to force a thesis that is not valid or relevant.

Again, there are other valid approaches to writing a paper. I’ve found, though, that Dr. Cabal’s suggestion is the most natural one to follow.

Whatever approach you take, enjoy the process. Writing is indeed a journey. There will be moments of deep insight and periods of intellectual drought. Expect this! However, with discipline and perseverance, you can write a paper that you are proud to claim as your own.


In Light of our Chaotic Summer, Don’t Grow Weary…Pray

It’s been a rather tumultuous summer so far this year. We’ve seen race riots flare up because of police-related shootings, raising calls for more accountability for cops. Three theater shootings have occurred in about a month’s time, bringing to the forefront again gun control versus gun rights. The Supreme Court passed a landmark decision legalizing homosexual marriage. And, Planned Parenthood has been exposed by released videos for negotiating and selling the parts of aborted babies.  Anyone who spends even only a small amount of time on social media or on the television has been inundated with opinions and arguments from various sides of the issues.

Because of the non-stop nature of our news cycle, it is easy to become weary of listening to the news about police-related shootings, gay marriage, and Planned Parenthood. The feeling of being overwhelmed with the news sets in, which can lead to a general sense of apathy toward today’s hot issues regardless of which side the news comes from. Though this tendency is natural, it behooves us as Christians to avoid such apathy and to remain aware of what is going on in our culture.

While feeling overwhelmed is a natural reaction to the ongoing news cycle and discussion over shootings, gay marriage, and Planned Parenthood (and any other topic that floods our news media and social media), we must be careful that apathy not take root in our hearts. Once apathy sets in, we are lulled into inactivity, choosing to ignore atrocities that must be met with prayer and the truth of the Gospel. There is perhaps no greater weapon Satan uses than the apathy expressed by the children of God toward the lies and injustices propagated by our culture.

I am reminded of the scene in the Garden of Gethsemane when Jesus Christ spent the early morning hours agonizing in prayer, knowing he would soon be bearing the sin of the world on the cross. The disciples followed Jesus to the Garden, but they did not join him in prayer; instead, they were overcome by weariness (it was late into the night) and fell asleep. Twice Jesus woke them up, but each time the disciples succumbed to sleep. After waking the disciples the second time, Jesus says to Peter, “Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Matthew 26:41, ESV).

Peter would soon deny the Lord Jesus, fulfilling Jesus’ words given just recently of Peter’s denial.The temptation Peter would face was that of denying Jesus in the face of opposition and tribulation. Jesus exhorted Peter to pray that he may not give in to this temptation. Instead, Peter, like Jame and John, slept as Jesus agonized over what would soon transpire.

Jesus’ words to the disciples in the Garden can, I believe, apply to Christians today. However, instead of literally falling asleep in the face of upcoming tribulation, we are lulled into a sleep-like state of apathy. The seemingly unending news and debate wearies our minds and hearts; however, we need to remain alert and in prayer for what lies ahead in the coming days. Weariness and apathy causes us to turn a deaf ear to the lies and injustices of our culture; being alert in prayer helps us to be ready for action and to respond with the truth of our Lord God.

I write this not as one who is in the thick of battle, calling out those who are lulled into inactivity. Rather, I am writing as one who struggles with the temptation to tune out the news and debate. I grow weary of the Facebook posts and the talking heads that seem to belabor points as they and their opponents talk past one another. I can then quickly become apathetic and, some times, cynical. Thus, instead of praying for our government or about the hot button issues of our day, I gloss over them by focusing only on those issues that impact me immediately – my family, my church, my work, etc.

However, such an approach does not make the pressing issues of today go away or that less important. Nor does it lessen the responsibility I have as a believer to pray that the truth of God would prevail in such dark times. So, may we – may I – “watch and pray that [we] may not enter into temptation.”

Using Science Fiction to Convey Theology: Robert J. Sawyer’s “Calculating God” as a Test Case

The post below is a revised version of a post from a now defunct blog I once had. In this post I discuss Robert J. Sawyer’s “Calculating God” and briefly explore how science fiction can be used as a vehicle to explore philosophical and theological ideas. This post coincides with my recent post regarding the value of historical fiction. More and more I am convinced on fiction’s value as a vehicle for philosophical and theological exploration and teaching.

What I’m purporting here is nothing new; rather, I’m discovering something that has been utilized with great skill by the likes of Dostoyevsky, Hugo, Twain, Lewis, and Tolkien, and more recently Umberto Eco. Other authors of less renown include Kenneth L. Roberts and Leon Uris. The genre of fiction is immensely popular in Christian literature, but (at least in my opinion) has little value in teaching and exploring; rather, Christian fiction seems to go little beyond mere storytelling. Storytelling is not bad in itself, but it seems that Christian authors have a phenomenal opportunity to use fiction to its fullest extent in teaching Christian truth in way that captures not only one’s mind, but one’s imagination and heart. We have a rich heritage from which to draw in the likes of Lewis and Tolkien, but it is one that is seems to wield little influence in contemporary authors (for the most part).

Despite the flood of fiction-for-fiction’s-sake book flooding Christian bookstores, there are Christian authors who seek to use fiction to build up the Christian worldview. One such author, who is fairly new on the scene, is Dan DeWitt (see recent post on The Owlings: A Worldview Novella here and here. See also his site for other books he’s published.) DeWitt has a new book coming out soon that is in the same vein as The Owlings. Another author is singer-song writer Andrew Petersons The Wingfeather Saga. I am sure there are more out there, but to this point, this is what I know. As I continue my discovery, I hope to find more!

And now, without delaying the inevitable, here is my discussion of Calculating God and the use of sci-fi to convey philosophical and theological ideas.

In 2009 I read Robert J. Sawyer’s Calculating God and found it to be an interesting work of sci-fi.  To be honest, my impression of sci-fi at that time was not that high.  I’ve tended to see the genre of sci-fi as nothing short of a playground for the imagination.  However, Sawyer’s book has dismantled my ill-informed view.  Science-fiction, at least those that are written well, can serve as a vehicle in integrating current scientific thought into the everyday world.  In other words, sci-fi can serve as a vehicle to play out the implications of certain scientific theories and experiments, utilizing the possible-world line of thinking as employed by philosophers.  More so, some sci-fi can even attempt to deal with the centuries-old problem of science and religion – what is their relationship, if any?  Sawyer’s Calculating God is not necessarily a book about extraterrestrials and their attempt to over take earth, thus resulting in a galactic world war; rather, Sawyer’s book is an attempt to meld together evolution and naturalism with Intelligent Design with the purpose of coming to grips on the existence and nature of God.

The Story

Without going into too much detail, I’ll need to go into the setting of the book in order for what I’m about to say to make sense.  Tom Jericho, a paleontologist (and, important to the story, an atheist) at Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum, is visited by an alien (Hollus) who is in the process of studying the evolution of the universe.  Hollus, along with several other aliens, visits Earth with no intention to overtake it; rather, they are on a voyage to several different universes to gather data for their research.  The book, then, is largely Tom’s interactions and conversations with Hollus (and at times another alien, T’kna) in which they collaborate with each other on their own findings and attempt to understand the nature of this world and its relationship to “God”, if there’s one at all (at least according to Jericho).  Of course, there must be action, so sprinkled throughout the storyline is a side plot of two religious fanatics (young-Earth creationists who hold to Scripture and the “traditional” God) who seek to destroy the fossils located in the ROM because of the “lies” they teach.  These characters quickly fade out of the picture, but play an important role in supporting Jericho’s (and ultimately the author’s?) view that anyone holding to the belief in the biblical God and the biblical teaching of creation (specifically of the young earth) is basically barbaric, an un-evolved person.

The Problem of Evil

A significant subplot of the story is Tom’s cancer.  The alien’s visit coincides with Tom’s final stages of lung cancer.  As Tom struggles with Hollus’ argument for “God”, Tom is unable to see why an Intelligent Designer would allow for the “mistake” of cancer, and ultimately, suffering.

Not a Bad Start!

In its teaching regarding the nature of God and this world, the novel starts off rather tame from a Christian perspective.  In the initial stages of Hollus’ visit with Jericho, the alien breaks the news to Jericho that there indeed exists an Intelligent Designer – God.  Hollus explains that the universe itself gives evidence of this Intelligent Designer and uses the same illustrations as current ID proponents to support their thesis (i.e. how the world consists of the right combinations of certain elements, the distances between planets and their sun are set at the precise measurement to avoid destruction, etc.).  Hollus finds it surprising that Jericho and fellow scientists on Earth do not believe in God as, according to Hollus, the evidence clearly points to an Intelligent Designer.  We see throughout the book Jericho’s struggle with this argument and his eventual acceptance of an Intelligent Designer.  Upon further reading, however, Sawyer’s concept of an Intelligent Designer begins to diverge significantly from the Christian concept of an Intelligent Designer (as such, when referring to God as defined by Sawyer, I’ll place the word “God” in quotes, along with any pronouns referring to Him in order to distinguish between the biblical God).

Sawyer’s Assumptions

A major assumption of Sawyer and his characters is the truth of Darwinian evolution and naturalism.  The universe is closed with no being existing outside of the material universe (as opposed to the traditional Christian view that God, as creator, is outside the universe though able to intervene in His creation at His pleasure).  As such, the material world is all that exists and has existed over time.  Further, implied in the novel, I believe, is an empirical view of epistemology – one comes to know something only through observation.  As such, there is no special revelation, no a priori knowledge, etc.  The aliens’ knowledge of “God”, then, came about only through their study of the universe.

A “Scientific” God

Because of Sawyer’s empiricism, naturalism, and Darwinism, his view of an Intelligent Designer takes on a non-theistic understanding of God.  For instance, in one of Hollus’ conversations with Jericho, the alien states, “I suspect God exists in the universe because of science” (92).  The alien further explains:

“As I said earlier, our universe is closed – it will eventually collapse back down in a big crunch.  A similar event happened after billions of years in the universe that preceded this one – and with billions of years, who knows what phenomenal things science might make possible?  Why, it might even make it possible for an intelligence, or data patterns representing it, to survive a big crunch, and exist again in the next cycle of creation.  Such an entity might even have science sufficient to allow it to influence the parameters for the next cycle, creating a designer universe into which that entity itself will be reborn already armed with billions of years worth of knowledge and wisdom” (93, emphasis mine).

In other words, with the creation of a new universe (after the previous universe collapses in a “big crunch”), a new “God” is reborn and “God” gains scientific knowledge based on what was learned (?) from the previous creation(s) and as evolution progresses.  Further, according to Hollus:

“I believe that the being which is now the God of this universe was a noncorporeal intelligence that arose through chance fluctuations in a previous  universe devoid of biology” (93).

As such, “God” is not omnipotent or omniscient, for these are just “adjectives” assigned to “God” by humans (170).  Instead, “He” just seems to be a higher evolved being than humans (and whatever else exists out there).

A question I have based upon this reading is: what has priority, science or “God”?  If I’ve read Sawyer’s work correctly, it seems that science has priority, setting the parameters from which “He” is to work.  Nonetheless, one sees the preeminence of science in understanding the world and God according to Sawyer’s view.


With a “God” limited by the world (being contained in a closed universe) and possibly even being created “Himself”, how, then, does “He” relate to creation, and specifically, to mankind?

Real = Imperfect

According to another alien (of a different species) named T’kna, because “God” is real, “He” is imperfect, as only “an abstraction can be free of flaws.”   In fact, the idea of a perfect God is a “fallacy.”

Referring back to Tom’s cancer, because “God” is real (and thus imperfect), it ‘follows’ that suffering exists since an imperfect “God” cannot prevent it.


Borrowing from quantum physics, only that which is observed is real.  Whatever “God” chooses to observe (having chosen from any number of possibilities) is what is real.

An Impersonal Being

“God” does indeed have a purpose for creating the universe (a purpose not mentioned, at least explicitly); however, “God” takes no interest in individuals and their lives.  As such, one is “delusional” in thinking that God listens to his prayers.

This idea is illustrated towards the end of the novel when Tom was able to travel with the aliens to the site of  a dead star (a star that had gone supernova that “God” shielded the aliens’ universe and Earth from) in order to meet “God.”  Upon arrival, Tom expects to receive no acknowledgment from “God” (though he does have some slight hope for a small acknowledgment at the least), and his expectations come to be true.  “God” is portrayed as some deep-black, spherical being with six appendages that shows no inclination of acknowledging the presence of the aliens and guests other than giving “life” to the concoction of DNA made by one of the alien groups.


With “God” having no part in an individual’s life, the role of morals and ethics takes an expected turn – they are merely man-made.  Specifically, morals are just a means to an end.  For instance, Hollus’ species determined their morals in order to instill peace in their society (which had been war-wracked for so long and almost faced complete destruction of their race).


Staying true to the naturalistic view, there is no life after death.  Any belief of life after death is based upon a fear of death

Science, then, can lead one to belief in the existence of God, but this “God” is nothing like the God revealed in Scripture.  In fact, Scripture is never referenced as support for “God”.

Scripture, etc.

Though not explicitly stated (if I recall correctly), Scripture is nothing but a book developed by ignorant (not as highly evolved) mankind.  Scripture, according to this book, does not reveal a true or real God.

If you recall the side plot with the two religious nuts, those who believe in Scripture as literal truth (the world is created, God is revealed to us in the Word, etc.) are presented as fanatics, those who seek to impede the progress of mankind.  In fact, when Tom finds out the purpose of the religious fanatics and their plot, he mutters, “Creationists!”  Quite humorous, but a sad fallacy of generalizing all who believe in creation to be backwards, ignorant people.

Sawyer’s book by no means conveys a traditional view of God, but it does illustrate what I spoke about earlier in this post. Fiction is one area that Christians can redeem and use to its fullest extent. Fiction need not be for the sake of merely telling a story; rather, employed with telos, it can help shape and guide the worldviews of generations of Christians to come.

I hope to write more on this topic in the near future, so stay tuned!

Virginia Corwin on Ignatius

A great summary of Ignatius by Virginia Corwin in St. Ignatius and Christianity in Antioch (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1960):

The suffering on the cross was real and the final proof that the grace and love of God are one. History and the world are thus not surrendered to Satan but remain the areas in which God works. Nor is redemption an isolated, profoundly individual moment all but out of time, as the modern existentialists would have it, but a stumbling and wholly human journey in a real world, to find grace in company with others in the church, and in the end to attain unto God (271).


Michael A. G. Haykin: “Reading the Church Fathers” at the Center for Ancient Christian Studies

This spring I have been immersed in reading the epistles of Ignatius of Antioch (flourished early 2nd century), an early church father who penned seven letters as he was led in chains to Rome where he would be martyred as a Christian. Little is known of Ignatius as no work exists that provides his biography, his ministry, or his theology. Instead, Ignatius’ seven epistles emphasize unity within the church and ecclesiology, avoiding heretical teaching, and imitating Christ through suffering. Woven throughout Ignatius’ main emphases, the reader sees traces of Ignatius’ Christology, his understanding of the Trinity, and the sanctification of the believer.

Unfortunately, many in evangelical circles are unfamiliar with the ancient Christian writers. Too often evangelicals view the early church fathers as Roman Catholic (particularly Ignatius of Antioch, depending on how one reads his ecclesiology). For others, the trials and issues of the early Christians have little connection to the 21st century context. Lastly, if one reads current works on the church fathers, it quickly becomes apparent that there are a number of conflicting interpretations, leaving one to choose (if able) the best approach to read and apply the fathers.

IgnatiusIn regard to the latter point, Ignatius of Antioch is a great example of conflicting interpretations. As mentioned earlier, one key theme that runs throughout Ignatius’ epistles is his impending martyrdom. Chained to his “ten leopards” (that is, the ten soldiers guarding him), Ignatius was led from Antioch to Rome to be martyred for his Christian faith (Romans 5). At times, Ignatius discusses his ultimate fate—facing the wild beasts in the coliseum—with boldness and expectation. In his epistle to the church in Rome, Ignatius pleads with them to not interfere with his ultimate fate:

I am voluntarily dying for God – if, that is, you do not interfere. I plead with you, do not do me an unseasonable kindness. Let me be fodder for wild beasts – that is how I can get to God. I am God’s wheat and I am being ground by the teeth of wild beasts to make a pure loaf for Christ (Romans 4).

At other times, though, Ignatius speaks as if he may not remain faithful until the end, denying his faith instead of dying for Christ.

Moreover, pray for me. By God’s mercy I need your love if I am going to deserve the fate I long for, and not prove a ‘castaway’  (Trallians 12).

At times Ignatius seemingly assumes authority over the recipients of his epistles, while other times he speaks of himself in self-deprecatory language. As such, many modern scholars read Ignatius in a variety of ways, ranging from schizophrenic, to neurotic, to power hungry just to name a few. With almost every Ignatian scholar, an interpretive “key” is found within the epistles themselves or the culture within which he lived by which one can understand Ignatius. The reader, then, is left with a buffet of Ignatian interpretations from which to choose.[1]

Despite the hermeneutical problems one can encounter when reading the church fathers, the value of such an endeavor far outweighs any potential interpretive problem. Over at the website for the Center for Ancient Christian Studies, Garrick Bailey writes a post highlighting a lecture given by Michael A. G. Haykin[2] titled “Why Read the Church Fathers?” along with a list of resources that serves as a solid starting point for those seeking to begin reading the fathers. Bailey provides a podcast of an interview with Haykin in which he traces the events that led him to study the church fathers and discusses why Christians (particularly evangelicals) ought to study the church fathers. Included in the list of church father resources are links to sites selling the books suggested by Haykin. Bailey’s post in an excellent starting point for anyone seeking to delve deeper into the riches of ancient Christianity.

As a shameless plug, CACS is doing a summer Greek reading group at Southern Seminary. The focus for this summer’s reading group is Ignatius of Antioch and his epistles. What follows is the remaining schedule for the reading group:

June 2 — Coleman Ford: “Attuned to the Bishop as Strings to a Lyre”: Imitation and Virtue Formation in the Letters of Ignatius

June 9 — Dr. Michael Haykin: An Introduction to Ignatius and the Letters of Ignatius

June 16 — Dr. Danny McDonald: Ignatius and Ομονοια: Unity As a Means to Attain God

(If you’re in Louisville or the surrounding area and are interested in attending, visit the site (here) or leave a comment to this post and I’ll get in touch with you.)

In short, regardless of your field of study—whether it be philosophy, sociology, OT or NT studies, etc.—the ancient Christian writers are a treasure trove of biblical and philosophical insight that spans the vast expanse of time, reaching the “not-so-new” issues of the 21st century.

[Web-based resources of Ignatius’ epistles: http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/ignatius.html].


[1] It goes beyond the scope of this post to discuss an approach to reading ancient texts. It is my opinion that some modern attempts to the interpretation of Ignatius are influenced too much by modern presuppositions that are read into Ignatius’ epistles. Though difficult, I believe the best approach is to give Ignatius (and any other ancient writer) the “benefit of the doubt” by seeking to understand them on their own terms first before seeking to embark on connecting the writer to 21st century issues. This is vague, I am sure, it is sufficient enough (due to time and space) to illustrate an approach that is fair to the ancient Christian writers.

[2] Haykin, according to sbts.edu, “serves as Professor of Church History & Biblical Spirituality. Dr. Haykin has a B.A. in Philosophy from the University of Toronto (1974), a Master of Religion from Wycliffe College, the University of Toronto (1977), and a Th.D. in Church History from Wycliffe College and the University of Toronto (1982).” He is also over the Andrew Fuller Center for Baptist Studies.

Is There Any Value in Historical Novels?

Books and PenWhen I have the opportunity to read outside of my field of study (which is not often these days), I gravitate toward my favorite author, Kenneth Lewis Roberts (shameless plug: see my website devoted to his works here). Roberts’ heyday was between the early-1930s to early-1950s when he published several best-selling historical novels centered around the time of the American Revolution.

Roberts did not write historical novels to satisfy his craving to write. Rather, in his autobiography I Wanted to Write, Roberts recounts his literary journey. He began his writing career as a correspondent for the Saturday Evening Post. However, he wanted to do more and eventually came to the realization that his passion was found the history of his people in Maine. Roberts states:

I had tried to get some of these things straightened out in my mind by reading histories that purported to explain them; but in every case–not in most cases, but in every case–I found that the books explained nothing fully or satisfactorily.  They were drab, dull, unconvincing, rich in omissions, and crowded with statements that couldn’t possibly be true (Roberts,167).

I had tried to get some of these things straightened out in my mind by reading histories that purported to explain them; but in every case–not in most cases, but in every case–I found that the books explained nothing fully or satisfactorily.  They were drab, dull, unconvincing, rich in omissions, and crowded with statements that couldn’t possibly be true (Roberts, 167)

That, it dawned on me, was what I must do.  Even though nobody read what I wrote, it ought to be done, because nobody had every done it before–and there ought to be at least one book that would give the good people of Maine an honest, detailed and easily understood account of how their forebears got along.  I hadn’t the slightest desire then to write what is known as an historical novel, not have I ever had any intention of doing so.  In fact, I have always had a profound aversion to most historical novels, because the people in them aren’t real people, and neither act nor talk like anyone I’ve ever known (Roberts, 168).

(see my post on Roberts and his historical novels here)

For Roberts, historical novels served as a medium through which history is brought to life. While there have been others who share Roberts’ view about historical novels, the genre is still widely misunderstood.  At the website for the Historical Novel Society, an adaption of a speech given by Sarah Johnson of Eastern Illinois University in 2002 titled Defining the Genre: What are the rules for historical fiction? provides her assessment of where the genre of historical novels stands today. In short, there is little consensus over how to define the genre and over the value of such literature. Yet, as the genre of historical fiction grows, attention is required as to how one defines it; hence one of the reasons the Historical Novel Society exists.

In a web article titled “What is Historical Fiction” (2006), H. Scott Dalton attempts to provide a definition of historical fiction. While his definition is somewhat helpful, his foray into the value of historical fiction captures Kenneth Roberts’ vision for his historical novels and the potential for well-written and well-researched historical novels. Dalton contrasts the historian with the historical fiction writer. While the historian writes to lay out the events as they occurred, analyzes the facts, and provides for the reader how the puzzle pieces of the past fit together. In short, “A good historian helps us imagine the roar of battle, the spectacle of ruined earth littered with dead, giving us a safe vantage point between and above the lines of battle” (Dalton). The historical fiction writer, however,

puts us in the battle. We do not watch the young Marine slog his way up Mount Suribachi; we feel his heavy pack digging into our shoulders, curse as our feet slip in sand and mud, hear the snap of passing rounds and feel his fear as we hit the dirt with him and scramble for whatever cover we can find. We pray with him in the moments before he raises his head from the sand and looks around. We care about the things he cares about: not expansionism or oil embargoes or national strategy, but his brother who lost a leg at Pearl Harbor, his girl back home, the buddy who was right next to him, but now lies in the dirt not moving. We’re not just watching the fight; that’s our buddy, our girl back home, our brother. The writer of historical fiction is first a writer not of history, but of fiction, and fiction is about characters, not events.

So historical fiction is a close relative of history, but not simply a retelling of the lectures we learned to dread in high school. We write historical fiction, and read it, not to learn about history so much as to live it. It is the closest we can get to experiencing the past without having been there. We finish a history and think “So that’s what happened!” We finish a work of historical fiction, catch our breath, and think “So that’s what it was like!”

Dalton does not seek to discount historical works (neither do I); rather, he highlights how historical fiction can enhance what we learn in the works of historians. The historical novel helps one to experience in some way the events of the past. Such an approach appeals to one’s various senses and one’s emotions, bringing in the whole person into the work.

Take for example Leon Uris’ Trinity, an historical novel about the struggle between the Irish and Britain in the late-1800s to the early 1900s. By placing historical events in the context of a narrative, history unfolds through the lives of the characters. The reader connects with the various characters of the novel, experiencing their trials and successes, their inner turmoils and interaction with the world at large. Such an approach takes the reader from their perch as an uninvolved observer and places them in the thick of the action. By experiencing history in this way, one can then better understand the why and how of history as told in more technical works. (One problem with historical novels is the use of real people of the past and fictional characters; this is another topic for another time. For now, I am assuming that the historical novel writer is attempting to portray historical events as they occurred though employing dialogue that is of the author’s invention but based on solid research).

The idea of experience building upon knowledge is not unfamiliar to us. Most colleges today require students to do some sort of internship work to go along with their classroom work. One can learn as much as they want from books and lectures; however, that knowledge is of little use until it is put into practice. The experience the student gains in their internship ties together all that they’ve learned and turns their “book learning” into something that is lived and is real.

Historical fiction, if done well, can enhance one’s learning and knowledge in a particular area of study. Further, historical fiction can reach a wider audience than that of more technical works. One only has to visit a book store to know that fiction is, by far, the best-selling genre. Frankly, fiction is more appealing to the majority of readers. As such, the potential is great for the use of historical fiction to present significant idea and to teach a wider audience vital lessons.  In particular to the circles I run in, there is great potential to use historical fiction in teaching solid biblical theology. Deep questions and ideas can be explored in such a way that the reader is drawn into life’s ultimate questions without feeling like they are trudging through a text book.

Much has been said already, but there are many unanswered questions I leave before you. What this post does not serve as is the “end all, be all” declaration on the value of historical fiction; rather, it serves as the fruits of my ruminations on my favorite genre and it’s potential in theology and philosophy. I hope to write more on this in the near future.

[It should be noted that historical fiction is not the only genre that can be used to teach theological and philosophical ideas in narrative format. See my recent post on Dan Dewitt‘s “The Owlings: A Worldview Novella.”  I will also be posting an old review I did on a sci-fi book that discusses the use of sci-fi in discussing theological and philosophical ideas.]


Gavin Ortlund on Pre-Reformation Theology

Gavin Ortlund pens an excellent article at thegospelcoalition.org on the resurgence of interest among Protestants and Evangelicals in pre-Reformation theology. The context behind this article is a “marked movement” of Evangelicals and Protestants to Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. This movement is not limited to the layperson in the pew, but includes such figures as Francis Beckwith (former ETS president). Such conversions have also garnered attention from secular media such as The Washington Post and their story on two former Southern Baptist twins – one who converted to Catholicism and the other to Anglicanism (see a summary here and the link to the article).

Ortlund notes one reason for this movement, particularly among younger generations:

I think one significant factor is the sense of rootlessness and restlessness many younger postmoderns feel today. At the heart of my generation is a profound emptiness—a sense of isolation and disconnectedness and consequent malaise. We’re aching for the ancient and the august, for transcendence and tradition, for that which has stability and solidity and substance. And it’s driving many of us out of evangelicalism.

The thrust of Ortlund’s article is that Protestant Christians can find much value in the study of ancient Christianity. One can be Protestant and still read medieval theologians and the church fathers.  Even John Calvin appealed to Augustine in his works. While one must be careful not to lose the distinctions between Protestantism and Catholicism,

it’s also possible to so bask in our particular denominational enclave that we lose touch with the entire Christian tradition. We contemporary Protestants need a balanced historical identity. We need to engage with both the last 500 years and also the previous 1,500, recognizing areas of discontinuity as well as encouraging points of overlap. As an African Christian in the patristic era remarked, “I am a Christian, and nothing which concerns Christianity do I consider foreign to myself.”

Ortlund’s article is a timely encouragement to those in Protestant and Evangelical circles rediscovering pre-Reformation theology. It mirrors a growing interest in ancient Christianity at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary as a result Dr. Michael A. G. Haykin‘s influence. One way in which Southern Baptists have joined in the growing interest in early Christianity is the formation of the Center for Ancient Christian Studies by Shawn Wilhite and Coleman Ford. According to its website,

The Center exists to provide an evangelical voice to the academic fields engaging ancient Christian literature. We aim to provide material, coalesce sources, and encourage the scholarly enterprise of ancient Christian studies (2nd Temple Literature, New Testament, and Patristic).

May the Lord bless this movement of rediscovering early Christian theology, and may it strengthen our roots to historical Christianity in the ever-shifting sands of our culture.