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Advent and Christmas Poetry: Awe – John Donne’s “Holy Sonnet 15”

Editor’s Note:  Holly Ordway is Professor of English and Director of the MA in Cultural Apologetics at Houston Baptist University, and the author of Not God’s Type: An Atheist Academic Lays Down Her Arms (Ignatius Press, 2014). She holds a PhD in English literature from the University of Massachusetts Amherst; her academic work focuses on imagination in apologetics, with special attention to the writings of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Charles Williams.

By Holly Ordway 

After the anticipatory and penitential season of Advent, we come to Christmas. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God… And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:1, 14) Christmas is the Feast of the Incarnation of Jesus Christ – the Word made flesh.

The Greek word used in the Gospel for “Word” is Logos. It doesn’t just mean word, in the sense of a spoken or written word; Logos also means order, rationality, logic. The universe is an orderly place, one in which laws of nature can be discerned. Cause and effect function; we can observe nature and draw conclusions from it; we can use our own minds, our own reason, to interpret the world rightly and put our interpretations into practice. We take all this for granted, but we shouldn’t. It doesn’t have to be the case that the universe is orderly and comprehensible. The ancient Greeks thought the world was fundamentally chaotic; as a result, they didn’t bother to pursue experimental science. Why observe nature, when it is random? Why run an experiment, if it will just come up differently another day? We should pause in wonder and awe at the fact that the world is, indeed comprehensible, because it doesn’t have to be. Though there is so much that we do not understand about the world, yet we can understand so much through the use of our minds, somehow standing above and apart from the universe that we study.

The underlying structure of the cosmos; the basic rationality from which all reason comes; order, rationality, meaning – Logos. “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us… full of grace and truth.” When we speak of the order of the universe, whether we know it or not, we speak of the Second Person of the most holy Trinity, the Son of God, Jesus Christ.

Who was born in a stable in Bethlehem.

John Donne’s poem “Holy Sonnet 15” invites us to consider what that means.


Holy Sonnet  15

Wilt thou love God as he thee ? then digest,
My soul, this wholesome meditation,
How God the Spirit, by angels waited on
In heaven, doth make His temple in thy breast.
The Father having begot a Son most blest,
And still begetting—for he ne’er begun—
Hath deign’d to choose thee by adoption,
Co-heir to His glory, and Sabbath’ endless rest.
And as a robb’d man, which by search doth find
His stolen stuff sold, must lose or buy it again,
The Sun of glory came down, and was slain,
Us whom He had made, and Satan stole, to unbind.
‘Twas much, that man was made like God before,
But, that God should be made like man, much more.


Like Eliot, Donne shows the connection between the Incarnation and the Crucifixion. For why did God become man? For us, and for our salvation: “The Sun of glory came down, and was slain, / Us whom He had made, and Satan stole, to unbind.” We are bound by sin, stuck in alienation, misled by Satan to put our own wills higher than the will of the One who made us. Despite the fact that our situation is, to put it bluntly, all our own fault, the Son, the Light of the World – the Sun of Glory – came infinitely far down to us, to loose us from the chains of sin.

And at what a cost. He made us, and so we are rightfully His, but even so, He chose to pay for us again – to pay the ultimate price of His own perfect and sinless life, for us: “And as a robb’d man, which by search doth find / His stolen stuff sold, must lose or buy it again, / The Sun of glory came down, and was slain.”

Yet Donne reminds us that our Lord offers not just rescue from sin, but eternal life as adopted children of God! “The Father… Hath deign’d to choose thee by adoption, / Co-heir to His glory, and Sabbath’ endless rest.” It is an offer that seems too good to be true… except that it comes from the hand of the Father, who is perfect Good, and so it is an offer that we can trust.

What does Christmas Day mean to us? It means that on a particular day in history, God Himself took on mortal flesh and was born as a human baby, in cold and poverty, in fear and uncertainty and the shadow of Herod’s murderous intentions.

We could not reach up to Him, so He came down to us. No myth, this. No fairy tale – but reality, a fact of history, as hard-edged as it gets.

What does this mean to me, to you?

If it is true – it changes everything.

“’Twas much, that man was made like God before,

But, that God should be made like man, much more.”


Photo: “Virgin and Angels Watching Over the Sleeping Infant Jesus.” By Francesco Cozza. Public Domain. Obtained from National Gallery of Art. 

The Responsibility of the Christian Writer

By Holly Ordway

As an apologist and academic who works in the field of imaginative and literary apologetics, and as a working poet, I often think about what it means to be a Christian writer. I believe it’s a serious vocation; writing is a gift and a calling, and it can be a form of ministry — but often not in quite the way that Christians think. My musings on the subject have led me to think that the Christian writer has a threefold responsibility.

First, the Christian writer is called to live so fully in right relationship with the true and living God, the most holy Trinity, that inviting a reader to share the writer’s perspective will mean sharing (in some way) in that living relationship,

Second, the Christian writer is called to trust fully in the power of the Holy Spirit: that God can, does, and will work through literature to reach the hearts and minds of readers. Writing that is aggressive in presenting explicit apologetic argument or doctrinal concepts is often writing that lacks a confident faith in the power of the Spirit. Remember that it was through the pagan Norse myths that God first began to call C.S. Lewis to Him, and that Lewis was at a deep level oriented toward God by the fantasy novel Phantastes, which, although written by a devout Christian, lacks any overt Christian or even theistic elements whatsoever. Readers can, and do, recognize Christian truth that’s presented subtly; they can be nourished, challenged, and drawn deeper by stories and poetry that have a gleam of truth, that awaken longing, that hint at the mysteries of our faith. Explanation is not always necessary; sometimes exploration is best.

Third, on the basis of that deep trust, the Christian writer is called to write to the glory of God, creating beauty and seeking to express truth at a deep level, so that the work becomes a locus of potential encounter with the living God not through any explicit maneuverings on the author’s part, but through pointing to the truth that is at the core of all truths: the one true and living God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

As apologists, evangelists, teachers, preachers, and pastors, we can make literature an important part of our ministry work. By celebrating art and literature, as well as reason and arguments, we honor the God who is both Truth and Beauty. By offering multiple ways to approach and encounter the living God, we respect the uniqueness of each human being made in God’s image.

What the writer leaves implicit, teachers, parents, and apologists can tease out and make explicit in response to questions. When the poet helps the reader recover clear vision, we can show how to live in the light of the insights gained. And when the storyteller creates a longing for more than this world can offer, we can point toward the One who alone can satisfy all longing.

Photo: “Written in  Gold” by Anonymous. CC License. 

Story and Truth

By Holly Ordway

Holly Ordway is Professor of English and Director of the MA in Cultural Apologetics at Houston Baptist University, and the author of Not God’s Type: An Atheist Academic Lays Down Her Arms (Ignatius Press, 2014). She holds a PhD in English literature from the University of Massachusetts Amherst; her academic work focuses on imagination in apologetics, with special attention to the writings of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Charles Williams.

Why Story Matters

We are all storytellers.

Our lives have a beginning, a middle, and – one day – an end. Birth announcements connect the new baby with the lives of the parents; later, graduation, wedding, and retirement announcements flag important plot points; the obituary will be a final summing-up.

Couples recount the story of how they met and fell in love. Travelers regale us with the stories of their adventures. Frustrating events become good stories when the sting has passed.

We need story. Imagine encountering a friend who seems distraught. Our first question will likely be “What happened?” We know intuitively that we must know something of the narrative to understand and sympathize properly. It’s the same when we encounter a joyful friend: we want to be drawn into the story, to be able to rejoice!

We understand our lives in terms of story, and thus story can help us understand our lives.

Stories are necessary for presenting truth in other contexts as well. In a court of law, we don’t just have a set of facts, we have the testimony of witnesses, individual stories about motives and events that make part of the larger narrative of “What really happened?” In job interviews, every candidate has a narrative of past jobs and experience, a story that is more than just items on a resume, but includes what that person has learned from those experiences.

Yet, in our increasingly post-Christian culture, the idea of story has become divorced from the idea of truth. Even though we live our lives in a context where true stories are vitally important, the connection of story with objective truth is obscured at best, obliterated at worst.

In the secular world, story is often treated as morally insignificant. Movies, books, television, and video games are all built around narrative – that’s what makes them powerful – but the idea that these forms of story be challenged as to their truth seems odd at best. “It’s just a story, just a game, it’s not real” – these are the stock responses to any who express concern about what falsehoods or bad influences might be presented in entertainment media.

Paradoxically, however, our culture encourages us to consider own stories about morality and the meaning of our lives to be authoritative. Our modern culture encourages a cafeteria spirituality, in which we pick and choose our values, with personal preference having ultimate authority. “This is what’s true for me. It might not be true for you, but it is for me.” It’s impossible to argue with, and isn’t that the point? Splendidly free from anything that might challenge our carefully constructed citadels of individual truth, we carry on untroubled by any suggestion that self-sacrifice rather than self-indulgence is called for.

Sadly, Christians have contributed to the marginalizing of story as a means of telling truth. Although the Scriptures are largely composed of story – narrative and poetry – many Christians, especially Protestants, view story with suspicion, as a form of lying, and have thus impovershed their imaginative lives. A few crucial figures over the past century have kept the connection between story and truth alive for Christians: most notably the Protestant George MacDonald, the Anglican C.S. Lewis, and the Catholic J.R.R. Tolkien and G.K. Chesterton. Their work, especially that of Lewis and Chesterton, has had a profound effect on many individuals, and is becoming more and more on the forefront of apologetics – the defense of the faith – and evangelization today. We need to carry on that good work, as a way of bringing the light of Christ to a culture in desperate need.

Story, Adrift

In order to understand what has happened to story as a mode of telling truth, and how we can reclaim story, we first need to consider what has happened to the Western worldview over the past few centuries.

In a slow process that began with the Enlightenment and has continued to the present day, the human faculties of reason and imagination have been separated, to the detriment of both.

On the one hand, reason has been given free rein, and the pursuit of knowledge using our God-given intellect has become scientism and materialism, the idea that only those things that can be empirically measured and logically figured out can be considered “true” or “real.” In the world of science, truth is held to be only that which is measurable and testable. Intangible things like emotions and spiritual truths are decidedly second-class citizens. After all, souls can’t be detected with an MRI, and love can’t be weighed and measured!

This adulation of reason without the counterbalance of imagination leads to an inevitable diminishment of the vision of what it means to be human. Our culture is showing many signs of this part of the reason / imagination divide. For instance, in a culture that embraces “scientific” ways of thinking, it becomes difficult to justify spending any extra time or money in promoting the arts, or making buildings beautiful. In older cities like Boston or Philadelphia, the public buildings from the 18th or 19th centuries – the town hall, the courthouse, the banks – have elegant, inspiring architecture. Contrast that to your local 20th century Department of Motor Vehicles.

More seriously, the fact that the human soul cannot be weighed, measured, or detected with scientific instruments has led to a creeping tendency to define human beings by what they can do, not by their innate dignity as men and women made in the image of God. The elderly and disabled, who cannot define themselves in terms of what they can accomplish, can very easily be considered a burden on society.

Narrowing the definition of truth to what reason alone can determine makes it possible for people to design functional buildings that depress the soul, and for people to talk about the suitability of ending one’s life simply because one is old and tired. With the use of reason alone, it is too easy to make categorical distinctions; a person can be a statistic, not recognized as one of the human beings that the scientist or bureaucrat interacts with on a daily basis. It is Imagination that would reveal the truth: the true connection between the imago Dei, the image of God in human beings, and each individual, unique human being.

Yet in the broader culture, unchecked imagination goes its own route to error. Ungrounded and undisciplined, a de-Christianized imagination has not led to more beauty, but to less. When less is left to the imagination, storytelling becomes shallow and limited. In order to get some sort of response, art, literature, music, and film move toward  the breaking of standards for the sake of destruction, and the rejection of limits of any kind.

Sexuality and violence, ever more of it, and ever more corrosive, become the norm for entertainment. In movies, we have gone from Alfred Hitchcock’s classic Psycho to the gore-fest of Texas Chainsaw Massacre, with the same trend appearing in books. The popular young-adult series The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins, is full of graphic depictions of violent injuries and gruesome death. Peter Jackson’s film version of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit adds violence at every turn.

The high level of sexuality in books and film, including books for younger readers, has become so much the norm that one of the things that makes the Harry Potter series distinctive is its refreshing lack of explicit sexuality and its depiction of chaste dating behavior – in other words, J.K. Rowling is notable for holding to standards that were normal up to a few decades ago.

Criticism of these trends is muzzled, however, because all of these excesses are claimed to be for the sake of art or fun, with no “meaning” behind them whatsoever. “It’s just a book” or “It’s just a movie” are the most common retorts to any expressed concern about the ideas and behavior being presented (and implicitly promoted) in the media.

We need to recover the connection between imagination and truth. Without the recognition that our values are objectively grounded in the living God, and that our flourishing as whole human beings depends on a right relationship with Him, the imaginative impulse will lead us to destruction as surely as unchecked reason.

But we are all storytellers, and the human need for story pops up wherever we look, even where we would not expect to find Story at all. In the realm of unchecked reason, skeptics tell just-so stories to explain every aspect of our lives in terms of biology and evolution. In the realm of unchecked imagination, celebrity culture allows people to participate in drama, and to have heroes and villains (if only for a fleeting moment). Even when we’re completely wrong about the way the world works, with our lives completely out of touch with the living God, we are drawn to narrative, imagery, characters – story. Such is the power of storytelling.

Story, when it is rightly used in the service of truth, can help connect reason and imagination into a healthy, God-focused whole.

A Dangerous Dead End

Redeeming story for the cause of truth means more than just slapping a Christian label on the idea of storytelling. Portions of the Christian church – most notably those that describe themselves as the Emerging or Emergent Church movement – have wholeheartedly affirmed a postmodern understanding of story. In this view, Christians have a wonderful story, one that brings meaning and joy and purpose to those who accept it, but it is a story that makes no claims, or sharply limited claims, about objective reality and objective truth.

The Emergent movement has been reacting against extremes in both the secular and Christian world. On one hand, the Emergents are rightly reacting against the harsh extreme of scientism, which has no room for human spiritual needs. On the other, they are also reacting against the extreme of cold literalism in the church, which strips Scripture of its beauty and reduces our relationship with the living God to a set of detailed doctrinal principles to affirm. The postmodern reaction against these extremes is not surprising, and indeed in many ways the postmodern Christians serve as a canary in the coal mine: the reason / imagination split can’t be ignored as something in secular culture alone.

The postmodern view of story can be very appealing at first, but it fails because it does not firmly connect story to truth. If our narratives are generated and sustained by our communities, eventually differences in beliefs will fragment those communities down to the individual: my truth, my story. Either we will be trapped in the particular story we happen to be in, or we will shop around for a story we like better. Ultimately the postmodern Christian view of story disintegrates, because it acknowledges no transcendent Author of the story, and offers no way to determine if a given story is true.

Such a view is deadly, for it saps all the urgency to find the truth about spiritual matters. If Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life only for those who find that particular faith flavor appealing, then Buddhism or transcendental meditation or indulging in unlimited sex is equally valid for those who prefer those alternatives. Why pay attention to the Gospel if it is just one story among many?

Even in ordinary life, story without truth fails to satisfy. When I hear a story of my friend’s life, I expect it to be true, that is, corresponding to the way things actually are. When I read a poem, I expect it to show me something true about the world, to illuminate some aspect of my experiences, or help me appreciate real beauty better. When I read a novel, I expect it to make sense, for it to add to my enjoyment of the world, or help me understand things better, even if those things are sad or terrible (since we live in a fallen world, much of what is true is rather painful to hear). Even a story read for pure escapism needs to have some connection to truth in character, setting, or plot (not necessarily all three!). Surrealist fiction does not make for good beach reading; adventure and romance stories do, because they connect with things that we do recognize as true, namely that people can have adventures and do fall in love.

On a day to day basis, we flourish when the stories we tell about ourselves and the world, including our inner narratives, are true. The self-esteem movement attempted to help children live better, happier lives by telling them stories about their own greatness. But such stories were fabricated: kids were praised even when there were no objective grounds for praise. As a result, we have an entire generation of young people who have been trained in narcissism and brought up to believe that what matters is how they feel – the story they tell about themselves – not their actual accomplishments or character.

Simply telling oneself a new story is appealing. Americans are constantly reinventing themselves. It is good to have the freedom to make a course correction in life, but it is burdensome to think that one’s identity is one’s own responsibility. Our culture produces tremendous pressure to define oneself according to other stories: workplace success, or physical beauty, or social conformity. These are powerful alternate stories, and a Christian “story” that is simply one more feel-good option among many does not stand up as a viable alternative.

We must reclaim and redeem story, for the Church and for the world to which we minister in the name of Christ. If imagination gives us story without truth, and reason gives us truth without story, what we need is Christ who is Truth in story, the living Word.

The Christian Story

Christians are the only ones who can truly reclaim story. We do not offer just one more story, but the true story that is grounded in reality.

Reason and imagination are not separate, but are two sides of the same coin – two aspects of being made in the image of the Creator God. In Holy Scripture, we see no such false division between reason and imagination.

Consider Genesis: we can make propositional statements about the truths expressed in Genesis, but the way in which  God chose to reveal these truths is in narrative. Out of nothing, God created everything that is, and He gives us a story about it: then, and then, and next, and then. Genesis is the truth behind every “once upon a time,” the reason that we thrill to a story. We make, we create, because of who God is. God Himself is the ultimate Maker, the ultimate creative artist, whose creative stamp is impressed on us.

Holy Scripture is largely composed of poetry, narrative, parables. It is filled with beautiful imagery and communicates profound truth through metaphors: consider the description of the New Jerusalem, in Revelation, or the gentle imagery of Jesus as the Shepherd.

And, pre-eminently, the Word became flesh came and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth. We who follow Christ do not just know about him (with our reason), though our reason tells us many true things about him, such as the fact of his Resurrection, and the nature of his claim to be our only Lord and Savior. We also know him, directly and experientially, most deeply in the Eucharist. Such an experience cannot be fully conveyed through words, but only experienced, but the faculty of imagination helps in the process. Imagination opens the doors of our hearts, so that the Spirit may more fully enter in.

The beauty of the true Christian story is that it works at every point on the scale – as you would expect from a story that corresponds with truth.

The Christian story accounts for creation, for why there is something rather than nothing.

The Christian story accounts for the existence and nature of human beings, of rationality, of thought and language, logic and art.

The Christian story means that each of us has an absolutely secure part in the great Story, as adopted children of God the Father, an adopted brothers and sisters of God the Son, and as temples of God the Holy Spirit.

Reclaiming Story for Christ

For the Christian, the created world, which God made and called good, is full of beauty that points toward the living God. We do not create the meaning in the world, but rather discover it. We each have our own story, but it has meaning because it is part of a grand narrative that has an Author.

As Christians, we have the best story of all: the fairy tale to cap all fairy tales, the epic to top all epics, the romance of all romances, the bitterest of tragedies and the most joyful of happy endings – we have the story of a Creator God who so loved the world that He sent His only-begotten Son to die on a cross to save us. It is the best story of all – utterly captivating, thrilling, and satisfying – and also absolutely, completely true.

We need to reclaim story from those who would separate story from truth, making the one into meaningless reverie and the other into sterile ‘facts.’ It is one of the great lies of the Enemy in this day and age that storytelling is nothing but entertainment. Oh, no. The power of story is the power to tell the truth in ways that reach deep into both heart and mind; to draw the reader into the experience of knowing truth.

The account of God’s plan for the redemption of the heavens and the earth, our glorious future in the new creation, is often shrugged off by skeptics as just a story. Such a dismissal leaves us, however, with an intriguing opening. Indeed, we can say, the Christian story does sound like a fairy tale, but we have it reversed: in fact, it is fairy tales that sound like the Christian story.

Reading Redemptively

We need to recover the ability to read redemptively: to find and cultivate truth and beauty in the stories we read, watch, and share. Fiction, fantasy, poetry – too often we either disregard the power of storytelling or fear it as deception, but for human beings made in the image of the Creator God, storytelling is a profound means by which the Spirit can move and transform us.

Given that I have been talking about story, it may surprise readers to realize that most of the essays that follow focus on poetry. There is no mistake! Poetry offers us story just as much as novels do, though sometimes in different ways or in smaller, tantalizing glimpses. Above all, good poetry can help us to connect to the larger story that is our God’s work in the world. If we can read rightly, treasures await.

How can we read redemptively? The process includes recovering an understanding of how:

Literature can both reveal and reinforce worldview (one’s basic understanding of how the world works).

Imagery and symbols both communicate truth and deepen its impact on the heart and mind.

Immersion in the right kind of literary experience can refresh and renew our vision, enabling us to see the world in the light of Christ.

Reading redemptively will help us in discipleship, providing more ways in which we can grow in heart and mind in our relationship with Christ.


Photo: “old book” by T. Carvalho. CC License. 

Order and Justice: Mystery Novels as an Apologetic for an Objective Moral Order

By Holly Ordway

Holly Ordway is Professor of English and Director of the MA in Cultural Apologetics at Houston Baptist University, and the author of Not God’s Type: An Atheist Academic Lays Down Her Arms (Ignatius Press, 2014). She holds a PhD in English literature from the University of Massachusetts Amherst; her academic work focuses on imagination in apologetics, with special attention to the writings of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Charles Williams.

Mystery novels, taken as a whole, reflect at a deep level the truth of the Christian worldview. And yes, I mean mystery novels in general, not “mystery novels by Christian writers.”

Here’s why.

In any normal mystery novel (notice that I am omitting weird literary or experimental ones; those are the exceptions that prove the rule), certain ingredients are essential:

  1. A crime.
  2. An investigation of the crime.
  3. A resolution of the crime.

All three conditions point ineluctably toward a moral universe, one in which right and wrong, good and evil, have objective meaning. Let’s consider each point.

  1. A crime. In order for a mystery novel to be satisfying, the crime needs to be something recognizably wrong, not something that is merely illegal. For instance, building an office block in contradiction to the city’s zoning requirements is illegal, but in itself is not wrong. The investigation and fining of the culprits would be dull, to say the least. But what if the builders bribed a city employee to make fake permits? What if the architect was blackmailing the mayor into turning a blind eye? What if the people who started to investigate turned up dead? Corruption, blackmail, and murder are crimes, not against some statute created by a bureaucrat, but against the moral order. These things are wrong – and so we have a crime worthy of a mystery novel.

Murder is the gold standard, as it were, of mystery novels, because lethal violence against a human being means violence aimed at destroying a being made in the image of God, one who bears the imago Dei. Murder is objectively worse than, say, stealing the Crown Jewels. That is also why murder that includes torture or degradation of the victim is worse than simple murder.

However, murder seems to be losing some of its ability to shock and disturb in a culture that is saturated with visual images of violence and death, and that is losing its hold on the dignity of the human being. After all, the reason murder is murder, and not just killing, is that human beings have special dignity from being made in the imago Dei, the image of God. So if murder is losing its edge, how is a mystery writer to provoke that desired frisson of moral outrage, so that the reader will eagerly await the unmasking, capture, and punishment of the villain? My completely unsystematic and unscientific sampling of mystery novels suggests that child victims are ever more “popular.” In our jaded culture, we may not be moved by the death of an adult, but we are not so degraded (yet) as to be able to shrug off the death of a child. And in a culture that has become blasé about adultery and homosexuality, one of the few things left that can raise a genuine sense of moral outrage is child molestation. At least so far.

  1. An investigation of the crime. As human beings, we are free to make moral choices – which means we can, and indeed must, be held accountable for those choices. In a materialistic world, there would be no point in investigating a murder. The murderer was acting in the way that the bouncing around of his molecules determined he would act, and the victim was acting in the way his molecules determined he would act, and the intersection of the two yields one of them being returned to his component molecules. So what? In a materialistic world, bound by determinism, a murder victim would be no different from the victim of a natural disaster. To investigate means to look for an active agent in a crime; to find the person whose free moral action caused the criminal event to take place.
  2. A resolution of the crime. The most satisfying resolution to a mystery is for the criminal to be found and punished. The fact that we find a resolution necessary in a mystery novel points toward the moral reality of justice. It is not enough to know what happened; we want justice, not just on an intellectual level, but on a visceral, intuitive level. A mystery novel satisfies precisely when it provides for justice; when it does not, we are left unsettled, unsatisfied.

In some mystery novels, we desire mercy for the criminals – but even that points, again, toward a deep recognition of the moral structure of the universe. Only if justice is the basis for our relationships can mercy enter the equation, for mercy is precisely that which is not deserved but granted, setting the demands of justice aside. Without justice, there can be no mercy, only arbitrary decisions about who is punished and who is not.

In this way, any well done mystery novel points to the existence of a transcendent moral order, of good and evil, right and wrong, justice and mercy grounded not in the passing whims of a culture but in the eternal being of the Creator.

Photo: “Holmes!!…” by dynamosquito. CC license. 

Pagan Setting, Christian Virtues: Christian Character in Beowulf

By Holly Ordway

Holly Ordway is Professor of English and Director of the MA in Cultural Apologetics at Houston Baptist University, and the author of Not God’s Type: An Atheist Academic Lays Down Her Arms (Ignatius Press, 2014). She holds a PhD in English literature from the University of Massachusetts Amherst; her academic work focuses on imagination in apologetics, with special attention to the writings of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Charles Williams.

The epic poem Beowulf dates to around the 8th century AD. We don’t know the name of the poet; indeed we don’t even know for sure if the poet composed the entire poem himself, or adapted and Christianized an existing, pagan oral poem. (For the record, I hold with the first theory, of original composition by a thoroughly Christian poet.) Loosely, the poem recounts the adventures of Beowulf, a young hero who comes to the rescue of the Danish king Hrothgar, whose people are being terrorized by the murderous attacks of the monstrous Grendel. Subsequently, Beowulf deals with Grendel’s mother and then, after the passage of much time, with a dragon.

There’s so much rich material in Beowulf that I hardly know where to begin, so I’ll just say this: the poem provides rich material for reflection on sin and virtue, with Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and the dragon serving as powerful images of envy, anger, and greed.

When I read Beowulf, I am reminded that within my heart lives a little Grendel; when I feel lonely, how easily that turns to envy. And Grendel shows that envy turns to violence, whether the violence is outward as in the poem, or inward in the form of vicious thoughts or self-loathing. And I recognize the wisdom of the Desert Fathers, who knew that the deadly thoughts, or what we call deadly sins, can only be successfully fought by the cultivation of the corresponding virtue, with God’s help.  Just as Unferth in the poem redeems himself from his envy of Beowulf’s achievements by the generous act of giving Beowulf a sword to use in the fight with Grendel’s mother, so too I can turn away from envy by the acting out the virtue of kindness – having gentleness toward myself, acknowledging my own weakness, and toward those whom I love.

I’m also reminded of the danger of pride and the need for humility – a constant theme throughout the poem. Beowulf is not falsely humble: he recognizes and acknowledges that he has great gifts, and he uses them to do good work. I, too, can acknowledge that I have gifts, but like Beowulf I must always keep it very clearly in mind that these gifts come from God and are not my own. Beowulf keeps it real for me: he does pretty well with handling the temptation of pride, but he still slips up. He fails, and falls. And yet he’s still a hero.

For men, Beowulf has a particular value. The character of Beowulf is both virtuous and manly, which is a vision much needed today when our culture seems to send conflicting signals about manhood, including ambiguity about whether men are necessary at all, or about how men should behave toward women. Beowulf is confident, yet gracious; he is a man of action, and also one who freely shows his emotions.

In Beowulf, those attitudes of the heart that lead toward sin are shown for what they truly are: ugly, hateful, destructive things. And those attitudes of the heart that lead toward God are shown as attractive and desirable.

Beowulf shows that you can shout Christian truth loud and clear, even in a poem that never mentions the name of Christ, not even once. But even though the name of Christ doesn’t appear in the poem, I would say that the person of Christ certainly does: for Beowulf himself is a Christ-figure in many respects, for in the end we see that Beowulf lays down his life for his people.

A monster-fighting, sword-wielding Christ-figure? Now there’s an image of Christ that will resonate with different people, and on a totally different level, than “lowly Jesus, meek and mild” – and still be true to the Gospel. What a fruitful way to talk about virtue, and the imitation of Christ!

Photo: “Ben Belitt’s notations in Beowulf” by Crossett Library. CC license