Continuing discussion.

EPS Blog

This is the blog area for the Evangelical Philosophical Society and its journal, Philosophia Christi.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Interview with Robert Velarde

We interviewed Robert Velarde about his book, Conversations with C.S. Lewis: Imaginative Discussions About Life, Christianity and God (IVP, 2008). Robert is a Christian philosopher and apologist who used to be an atheist.

What motivated you to write Conversations with C.S. Lewis?

One of my academic specialties is C.S. Lewis. As a result, I've studied his life and works in-depth. My motivation for writing Conversations with C.S. Lewis (CCL) began as a fun side project when I had the idea to write a book featuring Lewis as one of the main characters of a story. The motivation is to reach a broader audience with an engaging presentation of the life and thought of C.S. Lewis.

How would you characterize the genre of your book?

CCL is tough to pin down to a typical genre. InterVarsity Press has it listed as "Christian Theology" and "Apologetics", though that doesn't quite capture the extent of what I cover. While working on the manuscript, I described CCL as a mixture of A Christmas Carol by Dickens and The Dialogues of Plato. Whether I pulled this off or not is debatable, but Lewis scholar Peter Kreeft, who endorsed my book, likened it to a mixture of A Christmas Carol, The Great Divorce, and It's a Wonderful Life, so maybe there's something to that.

At the most fundamental level, I'd characterize the genre as creative fiction with an emphasis on biographical apologetics. This is because I cover key aspects of the life of Lewis, as well as communicate his essential apologetic approach, but do this through a story. The two main characters are C.S. Lewis and a contemporary skeptic named Tom. They are on a journey through the life of Lewis, as well as being on a figurative spiritual journey for truth.

Who are the sorts of readers that you think would appreciate this book?

I would like to delight three kinds of readers. First, the Christian who may not know a lot about C.S. Lewis beyond maybe having read Mere Christianity or the Chronicles of Narnia, and not having a background in apologetics.

Second, CCL is appealing to open-minded skeptics--those who are really looking for truth in this world, but haven't found it or are doubtful about the claims of Christianity as a viable worldview. I think CCL offers a great opportunity for a Christian and open-minded skeptic to read and discuss the ideas presented together or even as part of a book discussion group.

Third, those already familiar with C.S. Lewis or even advanced in their knowledge of Lewis and his writings will enjoy CCL as an entertaining journey through the life and thought of Lewis. I've made a number of allusions to many books and ideas set forth by Lewis, so committed fans of Lewis will enjoy spotting these connections. Beyond that, it's just enjoyable to have Lewis "come to life" and interact with a contemporary skeptic through a fictional narrative. I did my best to have Lewis come across as true to his ideas, as well as making the skeptic a believable character and not a pushover.

Please briefly state what you attempt to accomplish in your book and why you think it is important to your readers?

I'd hope readers would come away with a better understanding of how Lewis defended Christianity in light of competing beliefs, particularly skepticism and atheism. The book will not only provide readers with an introduction to Lewis's life and thought, but it is also a sort of primer on defending Christianity, as it addresses the problem of evil, the existence of God, morality, the claims of Christ, grief, immortality, heaven, hell, and more.

I'd also like readers to see in Lewis an example of defending Christianity with gentleness and respect, as we're told to do in 1 Peter 3:15. In an age of incivility on the part of some atheists, and sometimes on the part of Christians as well, CCL offers a friendly dialogue between a Christian and a skeptic, demonstrating that we can still disagree but remain civil or even be good friends.

How does CCL contribute to the other books that you have written on Lewis?

My other books about Lewis include The Heart of Narnia (NavPress, 2008) and Inside The Screwtape Letters (Baker, forthcoming). The Narnia book focuses almost exclusively on the ethics of the Narnia series, exploring and assessing various vices and virtues represented in the series, as well as Lewis's ideas on ethics as represented in his other writings. Similarly, my Screwtape book, which is a reader's guide and commentary, also spends a lot of time on ethics, though it does touch upon other areas of philosophy.

Conversations with C.S. Lewis, however, is broader in its coverage of apologetics and philosophy as they relate to Lewis. It covers not only ethics, but also metaphysics and epistemology. The fact that this is done via creative fiction also means that it's meant to entertain as well as edify and educate. As such, it is my goal to appeal to a broader audience and communicate the Christian worldview in a manner that is appealing.

What are the benefits of your approach when seeking to understand Lewis, his ideas and their significance for our lives?

In an era of literally hundreds of books about C.S. Lewis ranging from his life, thought, fiction, and just about everything else he was involved in, why do we need another book about him? Just about every book about Lewis is non-fiction, presenting facts and information almost as textbooks would.

Unfortunately, not everyone wants to read a textbook or a non-fiction title. But everyone loves a good story. That's why people enjoy going to the movies or reading the latest bestselling novel. It's about the story and drawing readers into an engaging world. And that's exactly what I do in CCL. I give readers an entertaining story that also offers thought-provoking discussions on timeless philosophical questions such as the existence of God, evil and suffering, and the meaning of morality.

Readers will get to journey with Lewis, listening in as he converses not only with a skeptic, but with real-life individuals such as J.R.R. Tolkien and Lewis's wife Joy Davidman, visiting places such as Lewis's rooms at Oxford, the pub where Lewis and his friends--the Inklings--met to discuss their various projects, the trenches of World War I where Lewis fought, his imaginary world of Narnia, and more. But the topics they discuss along the way are timeless and relevant to anyone.

How would you assess evangelical apologetic efforts?

I think we have access to some of the best apologists and apologetic material around. But I still run into Christians regularly who have no idea what apologetics is or why we should be engaged in it. There is still, in my assessment, a conscious or subconscious anti-intellectualism in the church in Western culture. As such, apologists need to continue to spread the word regarding the role and value of defending the faith.

As to the strengths of evangelical apologetic efforts, I'd say it is in the fact that there remains a core of committed Christian individuals willing to engage culture intelligently, yet wisely. We're producing some great materials in the area of apologetics and holding some amazing conferences and debates.

But there are weaknesses. One of those weaknesses is the constraints that most apologists remain bound to by choice. That is, the kinds of resources being produced, with few exceptions, are largely the same sort of thing we've come to expect from the Christian apologetics movement. We're producing non-fiction books that in many cases continue to appeal to the same kinds of readers.

But by using creative fiction to communicate Christian truth, as Christ did with his parables, we can reach a much broader audience interested in story. There is a danger here, too, in that we need to be careful that when creative fiction and apologetics meet, we need to remain faithful to God's truth and avoid falling into theological error.

In one sense, creative fiction and apologetics or theology is not new. Milton's Paradise Lost or Dante's Divine Comedy, for instance, are in one sense works of creative Christian fiction. More recently, Lewis's space trilogy, especially That Hideous Strength, communicated apologetic elements largely based on his non-fiction work The Abolition of Man.

Don't get me wrong, though. We certainly will continue to need non-fiction works and textbooks on apologetics. They are desperately needed in the academic arena, as well as at a popular level. Some people read only non-fiction, while others read only fiction or a mixture of both. But we should not neglect the broad audience eager to read creative fiction that is winsome, entertaining, and edifying, but true to God's Word.

How might CCL contribute to the strengths of our apologetic activities and help us to address our weaknesses.

Conversations with C.S. Lewis will reach a broader audience with the message of apologetics and a reasonable faith because it is written as an engaging story. Its strength is in its unique presentation and delivery.

If it helps Christians know more about what they believe and why they believe, that would be great. If it moves an open-minded skeptic closer to a decision for Christ that ultimately sees that person come to Christ, then it has made an eternal contribution and one that I would rejoice in. If it spurs other apologists and Christian thinkers to reevaluate their approach in order to present their message in a more creative way, then I think together we'll reach a lot more people more effectively.

Robert Velarde is an author, editor, and philosopher. His books include Conversations with C.S. Lewis, The Heart of Narnia, Inside The Screwtape Letters (forthcoming). More of Robert can be found at his A Reasonable Imagination blog.

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Sunday, May 4, 2008

Interview with Craig J. Hazen: Five Sacred Crossings

We interviewed Craig J. Hazen, Editor of Philosophia Christi, about his new book Five Sacred Crossings: A Novel Approach to a Reasonable Faith (Harvest House, 2008). If you are in the Southern California area, Biola University is sponsoring a "Five Sacred Crossings" event on May 8th at 7:30 pm. Register here.

How would you characterize Five Sacred Crossings?

That's pretty straight forward. Five Sacred Crossings is a novel, pure and simple. The best way to capture the genre is to compare it to Dan Brown's novel The Da Vinci Code. The Da Vinci Code is a fast-paced, page turning mystery novel that packed into its center is some teaching about the origins of Christianity. Unfortunately, Dan Brown bought an ugly package of historical gossip and unfounded nonsense as the "suppressed truth" he was hoping to reveal to the world. But what better way to communicate such things than for a couple of years to have every other person on a given airliner reading about it! Dan Brown had the wrong message, but the right vehicle to disseminate it.

What I attempted to do was similar except that I packed into the core of the mystery novel key elements of the Christian worldview that make Christianity attractive and grounded in knowledge.

A funny side point is that the knowledgeable folks at Harvest House decided to position Five Sacred Crossings as a book of apologetics and not as a novel because the Christian fiction genre is so over saturated right now. They wanted my new book not to be lost in that category. Hence, they helped come up with a subtitle "A Novel Approach to Reasonable Faith." So I don't know where you will find Five Sacred Crossings in the bookstore - in the apologetics/religion section, or in the fiction section.

Without giving too much away, can you say what the book is about?

The book is about a few weeks in the life of a college professor and brilliant natural linguist named Michael Jernigan who takes a college class through some teachings called "the five crossings" that he learned about in the Cambodian mountains as a young soldier in the Vietnam War. Through these teachings, and raucous discussion among a group of very diverse students, the class learns how the wisest of people approach life's biggest questions. The book is punctuated by an intense story about an Indonesian terror cell in the college town. I certainly won't tell you how it ends, but I've been stunned by the fact that about a dozen grown men (not to mention the scores of women) have contacted me to tell me they couldn't put it down and were in tears when they finished it.

Why did you write it?

It seems to me that Christian philosophers, apologetics, and theologians in our generation have done some extraordinary work in re-establishing the intellectual credibility and the integrity of the Christian worldview in a secular and pluralistic age. What we haven't done, though, is find new ways to communicate these great truths to the masses who are so confused on issues of religious truth and the meaning of life. I thought I would try my hand at writing something that would appeal to people I know who would never read an apologetics textbook or a philosophy article in an attempt to engage them with clear thinking on the issues that matter most.

Who is your intended readership? And can you tell us about some of the reaction to the book?

I had certain folks in mind when I was putting the story together. Think about the millions of people who watch Oprah every day - they are open to spiritual and religious ideas, but want to connect with them first on an emotional level. They are open to thinking about the big issues if they are presented in a relevant and engaging way.

Forget about my intended readership for a moment, though. The book has been out long enough so that we know who is reading it - and it is really remarkable. Everyone you can imagine. Octogenarians, non-Christians, teenagers, women, men, people who haven't read a novel in decades, Christians, people in the highest ranks of the federal government, major TV stars, pastors, atheist college professors, a woman from Liechtenstein, a stuntman from Brazil, an Israeli soldier, a missionary in Cambodia, and on it goes.

As an evangelical Christian, it is very exciting to receive feedback from non-Christians who are reading it and caught up in the story and the ideas presented. I've heard dozens of accounts from unbelievers who read the story and then contacted me or other Christian people they know. The book really throws them for a loop. They resonate with all five of the "crossings" and find the main character very attractive—but at the same time they know that these are Christian ideas being presented. It's as if they needed to hear the big issues of the Gospel in a compelling new way. I intentionally wrote this book to break down stereotypes of Christianity and provide a fresh look at eternal truths. As one life-time agnostic told me after reading it, "we've got to talk about this - if this is how you look at the world it is far more rational and attractive than I have assumed."

Why should philosophers and apologists read fiction?

Christian philosophers and apologists need to read fiction (and poetry, and listen to music, and at least occasionally watch films and TV) in order to be culturally relevant. Jesus led his revolution primarily by telling unforgettable stories that stuck with people who heard him. Humans are wired for hearing and telling stories. The great ideas that are so compelling and persuasive to high-level Christian thinkers need to become part of the mindset for people in all societal strata. Therefore we need new channels of communication to make these ideas relevant to everyone. This is a creative project of the highest order. Although philosophers and apologists may not be the ones writing the novels, screenplays, and operas that ultimately move the culture, we need to be familiar with these modes of communication and discourse if we want to see our ideas last beyond the life cycle of our latest book from a university press.

Are there fiction writers that you admire or use as your model?

No, I can't say I used anyone as a model. Although I would recommend that anyone wanting to try their hand at what I call "didactic Christian fiction" should, for two reasons, read widely among very popular novelists whose works fill the racks at popular bookstores and airports. First, so you can see what level of discourse and style the general population finds engaging (after all, these are the people who you are seeking to influence with this kind of writing project). Second, it will encourage you because I think for the most part your reaction will be: "Oh my goodness, I can do much better than that." You might be wrong, but it will help overcome your insecurities about shifting gears to fiction writing.

Can you tell us what it was like to write Five Sacred Crossings?

The thing I enjoyed the most was discovering myself where the story was going next. I did not have a detailed master plan before writing, so every day was a little surprise with regard to the unfolding of the narrative. I am still surprised by my own ending. Re-reading it was an experience that I certainly have never had when writing academic books and essays. I picked it up started to read somewhere in the middle and couldn't put it down. I wrote the darn thing yet got caught up in the story myself! It was far more exciting and emotional than I remember when first writing it out.

What would you like to see happen with this book?

Of course, I would like to see it recommended by Oprah so it gets the widest possible reading! Okay, so maybe that's not going to happen, but it's a good dream. My book probably won't get that kind of exposure, but I hope some other compelling, thoughtful, stereotype-breaking Christian literature does. I think this is going to be most likely if those of us in the community of Christian philosophy and apologetics interact with the Christian creative community more intentionally and intensely.

From where you observe, as the Director of a cutting-edge Graduate Program in Christian Apologetics at Biola University, can you say how we - as American Evangelicals - are doing in our apologetic efforts?

How are we doing with apologetics? Not bad. There is one advantage when secular culture encroaches more and more on the Church's turf - the Church seems to awaken to some of the important things she has neglected like the apostolic command in 1 Peter 3:15 to "be prepared always to give an answer." By any measure the interest in clear-thinking Christianity has been on the increase. This may just be a regional phenomenon, but huge crowds come out to Biola to hear lectures and debates now that would have only attracted a handful twenty years ago. We have a long way to go, but I think significant progress has been obvious and measurable.

Our greatest weakness with regard to apologetics is that by-and-large the average Christian and pastor still thinks that knowledge and faith are non-overlapping realms of human endeavor and experience. Our greatest strength with regard to apologetics is that so many leaders and teachers in the movement model that fact and that it is not just about giving answers and winning arguments, but rather it is about living a full-orbed life in Christ.

How might Five Sacred Crossings cultivate the strengths of our apologetic efforts?

I think Five Sacred Crossings is centered on this key strength I just mentioned. The book uses arguments and persuasion, but the key characters model grace, kindness, courage, love, and sacrifice to make the arguments real and weighty. I see my colleagues in apologetics and philosophy at Biola doing this every day and it is more inspiring than just about anything you can encounter. These are men and women living the great answers to life's questions, not just speaking them.

Craig J. Hazen is the Director of the Graduate Program in Christian Apologetics at Biola University. He also serves in that program as Professor of Comparative Religion and Apologetics. More of Craig Hazen can be read at his blog.

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