In an issue honoring a remarkable scholar, I have been asked to do two things: honor Michael Ward and tell how he and Apologetics came together at Houston Baptist University. This requires saying something about why cultural apologetics was (with cinema and new media) such a priority for me during my time at HBU. Michael Ward was a major part of answering a question I had all my life about education: how can we continue what Lewis and Tolkien started? In God’s good grace, Ward was an answer that came with many other wonderful people who keep giving a fuller answer to that question.

Michael Ward is a churchman, not much celebrated as a category just now, but that means he is a man of community: living and dead. To know Michael Ward is to know the Church, humble and glorious.

How did I meet him? The right question came first, as must be if anything good is to come.

Just a Bus Ride: Plato, Tolkien, and a Kid

Imagine finding The Lord of the Rings in the library in seventh grade, opening it on the bus ride home, looking up to the rainy window, and knowing you had lost your weekend! Narnia had already captured my heart and my brother and I did what many children do––bump into the back of closets looking for other worlds. Tolkien ended any chance that the scientism of another writer I loved, Isaac Asimov, would harden my heart. I wanted wonderful science and sensible wonder: Lewis and Tolkien showed this was possible.

Around the same time, I ran into Plato and made a foolish mistake. The dialogues were brilliant, but as a kid I assumed the thing to do was to memorize the responses! I could then deploy them in the proper situations, yet the proper situations never came. Upstate New York turned out to have a shortage of ancient Athenian people who share the assumptions of Plato’s characters!

This taught me a lesson: arguments are for people, not people for arguments. Through intuition, the imagination can quickly jump several steps and see what can later be confirmed through careful arguments. That Hideous Strength saw the future: providing the arguments simply took time.

That bus ride and my later experiences in education left me dissatisfied. Lewis and Tolkien were gone to glory. Where could their equals be found? Less ambitiously: where were those people who would develop the imaginative apologetics they pioneered? Couldn’t we have analytic philosophy and Narnia too?

I was waiting for people like Michael Ward, but I did not know it at the time.

If you love Jesus and have an imaginative turn, then apologetics follows. Understanding the Faith can sometimes be helpful to outsiders, but it is essential to believers. We see the True Light, now what do we make of this wonder? How does it impact all of reality? Tolkien and Lewis (with some others) did not limit where the Light could shine: every corner of the cosmos, including the imaginative ones, should be bathed in Light.

If I could not do this work myself, could I provide a place for others who could? Where were they?

When asked to be Provost at Houston Baptist University, I immediately suggested a program in apologetics, but one that was very different. The leadership at HBU had, with justification, thought of apologetics as passé, but were open to something different and cultural apologetics was, just then, something completely different! How could this new apologetics program work?

First, the central focus would not be on philosophy, though philosophy would not be ignored. HBU had a fine graduate program in philosophy long before I came.  Instead of an over focus on philosophy and biological sciences, the goal was to integrate the rest of the disciplines that are too often ignored in traditional American Apologetics. My dream was to integrate apologetics into the totality of the university: the True Light spread to every field.

Second, the time was long past to bring different personality types into apologetics. Could a musician be an apologist? Of course! What of the poets? Apologetic audiences seemed to be overwhelmingly engineers at the time we began the HBU apologetics program.

Third, scholarship and training were often light in the field of apologetics. Could we increase the rigor of this discipline? You cannot get the next C.S. Lewis without robust training. Model apologists in philosophy had such training, but there were few role models in other fields.

Finally, women obviously could do all kinds of work — from analytic philosophy to poetry. Why was apologetics too often missing half the human race?

We would, I hoped, offer cultural apologetics at HBU. Who would join this unexpected journey?

Apologetics as a Master Discipline: A Wider Field

There were three people I knew who could change everything and do more than I could ever do if they got the chance: Mary Jo Sharp, Holly Ordway, and Nancy Pearcey. They agreed to come on board. Having described the general vision, my job was to get out of the way and hope I could teach a class or two!

Like––Plato thought––is attracted to like, and so the attraction of excellent thinkers, eager to apply imagination and reason to all fields, made things greater than I could have imagined. Hiring Michael Ward was essential, but I did not know it. Professor Holly Ordway, who was a leader from the first, did know it. Professor Ordway had been an outstanding student in a Masters of Apologetics class on Cultural Apologetics at Biola University and a scholar and professor in her own field of English literature. Through Professor Ordway and also through the C. S. Lewis Foundation, I knew Professor Ward in the sense one admires one’s betters!

Ordway suggested that maybe, just maybe, Ward would journey with us. The trick was how? Nobody wanted Ward to leave Oxford –– not Ward, and not me. This is where the rethink of online was key. Too many had made online a way to dilute the contact of students with professors. What if instead the tools of online education made geography more negotiable and allowed small classes and more discipleship?

Instead of being massive, online could be intimate: students drawn globally to a professor who would teach personally. Technology could annihilate space and allow for class to take place between an opera singer in California and Michael Ward in Oxford!

That was my rough idea and Professor Ordway made it possible using the tools we had at Houston Baptist University. Since incarnation is important to Christians, the online component could be blended with weeks where students could spend time with Professor Ward in Houston.

That was the vision, Ordway made it practical and so possible, and to my delight Ward agreed.

Suddenly, we had one of the leading Lewis experts joining a jolly band on a journey to imaginative apologetics. We needed Ward badly, more than I knew.

Professor Ward as Model

This side of Planet Narnia and almost a decade of teaching, Ward seems an obvious leader of imaginative apologetics. Why? He has taken the True Light further into the cosmos. He has brightened the corners that Lewis and Tolkien promised could be redeemed.

First, he is philosophically and theologically astute, but he is not limited to those fields. Ward can read a text and see literary truth. Planet Narnia is a brilliant work, even to those who do not agree with the central thesis. This is the surest measure of a good idea: critics love wrestling with the concept.

Second, Michael Ward is not the typical apologist. He has a poetic turn and an ability to hear the music and not just the lyrics of a work. He is able to see the True Light and has the ability to bear witness to that light even in Westminster Abbey.

Third, Ward is a genuine scholar. He worked hard and earned the proper credentials. He did this without forgetting his roots. He is no “fan boy,” but a scholar who read, thought, and explicated. This is vanishingly rare.

Finally, Michael Ward promotes a joyous range of scholars. He is mere Christian, in the forgotten sense of that abused term. Ward is a man of the Roman Catholic Church. He is not weak in his beliefs, but the very strength of his convictions allows him to make allies where he can. It is no shock that a diverse company of wanderers would find this man of wonder.

I have had a long career with more than one unexpected journey. One of the best was the unexpected journey of a cultural apologetics program at a Baptist university and a key reason for the jollification was Michael Ward.

Thank you for existing, Professor Ward.

Citation Information

John Mark Reynolds. “An Unexpected Journey.” An Unexpected Journal 1, no. 4. (Advent 2018): 39-45.

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