This article first appeared in the Christian Research Journal, volume 41, number 1 (2018). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal please click here.
In Charles Williams’s 1937 novel, Descent into Hell, a peculiar conversation takes place between a character named Pauline Anstruther, the novel’s heroine, and Peter Stanhope, a Christian playwright in whose play Pauline will perform. At rehearsal, a troubled Pauline reveals to Stanhope a unique problem that’s plagued her for some time. She confesses to the playwright that she frequently sees her doppelganger. For years, regardless of her setting, she’s physically come across herself. Understandably, these frequent run-ins have instilled in Pauline considerable fear. An otherwise haunting scene takes a redemptive turn when a sympathetic Stanhope asks, “You have friends; haven’t you asked one of them to carry your fear?”
“Carry my fear!” Pauline exclaims, utterly unable to imagine what Stanhope might be getting at. “How can anyone else carry my fear?’”1 Through Stanhope, Williams then offers up one of Descent’s most vividly depicted, vitally important, theologically imbued ideas: substituted love. Since Pauline has no one to carry her burden, as the very idea of someone doing such a thing never occurred to her, Stanhope offers to do it.
The whole business of burden bearing, Stanhope explains to Pauline, works like this: “When you leave here you’ll think of yourself that I’ve taken this particular trouble over instead of you. You’d do as much for me if I needed it, or for anyone. And I will give it to myself. I’ll think of what comes to you, and imagine it, and know it, and be afraid of it. And then, you see, you won’t.”2
If the spiritual nature of the proposal wasn’t obvious, Stanhope is quick to mention that his charitable suggestion isn’t without theological justification. “Haven’t you heard it said that we ought to bear one another’s burdens?” he asks Pauline, going on to explain, “but I think when Christ or St. Paul, or whoever said bear, or whatever he Aramaically said instead of bear, he meant something much more like carrying a parcel instead of someone else. To bear a burden is precisely to carry it instead of. If you’re still carrying yours, I’m not carrying it for you.”3
BEARING THE BURDEN OF APOLOGETIC FORM
Now, the scene’s relational heft, the conversational form itself, the theater of the whole thing, serves as a fitting stage for this theological idea of substituted love. The idea of substituted charity conveys a certain doctrinal force, but the real power of the scene lies in the paradoxical literary device of offering practically to carry something so mysteriously spiritual. The idea Stanhope proposes is so unusual, the talk of actually bearing another’s metaphysical burden so ungraspable, as to require a more concrete expression — an incarnation. So Williams works his doctrine of substituted love into the form of carrying another’s fear. Williams animates the abstract. He gives the spiritual a shape.
It’s in its attention to both substance and shape, both idea and form, that Descent into Hell takes on a distinctly apologetic task. Apologetics is the science of deploying theology, philosophy, natural evidence, and the principles of reason through the art of argument for the winsome defense of the Christian faith. Because we don’t find much by way of scientific verification or blatant evidentialism in creative works like Descent into Hell, we might be tempted to mute the ways they speak into the field of apologetics, namely, what they say about the importance of form.
By form, I don’t here just mean genre, though genre is form. Instead, I mean a creative trope in which a concept lives. Form is creative shape. And I could argue that an appreciation for, much less an appropriation of, form might prove difficult in today’s culture of apologetics. While apologetics finds itself in something of a new golden age, with emerging apologetic programs and a swelling body of apologetic literature, the kind of apologetic work being produced overwhelmingly is propositional in nature.
To combat secular naturalism, relativism, and an acerbic new atheism, Christian philosophers such as William Lane Craig, scientists such as Francis Collins, and philosophers of science such as Oxford mathematician John Lennox have emerged as needed defenders for the veracity of the faith. Propositional contributions — arguments we might hear from a William Lane Craig, Francis Collins, or John Lennox — to critical conversations revolving around epistemology, the origins of the universe, and the grounds for objective moral values have irrigated the deserts of unbelievers’ theistically uninformed thinking. The kinds of apologetics these important figures engage in aren’t always and totally without form. But there is, on the whole, far too little attention paid to what C. S. Lewis, the most popular apologist of the twentieth century and fellow Inkling with Charles Williams, called the logos and the poiema.
LOGOS AND POIEMA
In his work of literary criticism, An Experiment in Criticism, Lewis makes the distinction between logos (something said) and poiema (something made).4 In a work of literature, or in a work of apologetics, the logos and poiema work together to create a symmetrical union. What’s said and the shape of what’s said create harmony. A particular apologetic argument(logos), such as the conversation about substituted love between Pauline and Stanhope in Descent into Hell, isn’t only a vehicle, though it undeniably serves as one, but is also in and of itself a carefully made thing (poiema).
In the case of an argument such as the Kalam Cosmological Argument, William Lane Craig’s most commonly cited defense for theism, we do find an example of the relationship between logos and poiema in the Kalam’s signature syllogism:
Undeniably, the Kalam as an idea (the argument that behind the origin of the universe exists causal intention) relies on a syllogistic form. But what makes the Kalam so effective isn’t only its use of the syllogism; it’s that it is a syllogism. According to Lewis, this interdependence between substance and shape, a relationship that goes beyond utilitarian use, characterizes a proper understanding of a text’s very nature. He says about a literary reader’s experience with a work of tragedy: “What guards the good reader from treating a tragedy…as a mere vehicle for truth is his continual awareness that it not only means, but is.”5 Like the work of tragedy, an apologetic argument shouldn’t only mean; it should be. And in service to being, apologists must be careful not to contrive an argument merely as a mercenary means to some polemical end. The Kalam means that the universe came into being through a divine cause, and it is, if it’s to remain the Kalam, a syllogism arguing that the universe came into being through a divine cause. It lives through a form from which it could never be separated.
Throughout the history of apologetics, the more memorable defenses have demonstrated this harmony between idea and form. Could we imagine Paul’s argument for the “unknown God” to the Athenians in Acts 17 without his diatribe against the altar inscribed, “to an unknown God”? Or what might be lost in Aquinas’s “five proofs” for the existence of God without the interconnected, organized shape of five proofs? Without Peter Abelard’s creating a dialogue between the philosopher and the Christian, we’d lose the essential nature of his apologetic for Christian teaching. The idea of Pascal’s wager — that we all bet on God’s existence with our lives — only works because of the form of a wager. What else could Christ be in Lewis’s Chronicles if not the great lion, Aslan?
LONGING FOR A FORM
As something said and something made, a winsome apologetic for the faith will reveal a harmonious synthesis between idea and form. There is here, I think, a warning for the contemporary apologist. Apologetic attempts —particularly at a time in apologetics when more thought is given to proposition than poiema — can become shotgun efforts to pepper the skeptic with disparate facts on various topics picked up from random readings. But a defense for the Christian faith deserves a more robust offering. The apologist is called to no less than an intellectual enterprise with a creative impetus for the sake of Christ, an endeavor where indelible ideas merge with evocative expressions. The apologist, like the writer, must become a rhetorical craftsman, careful about how he’ll say what needs saying. Lewis, if we can recruit him once again, described this necessity for the author:
In the Author’s mind there bubbles up every now and then the material for a story. For me it invariably begins with mental pictures. This ferment leads to nothing unless it is accompanied with the longing for a Form: verse or prose, short story, novel, play or what not. When these two things click you have the Author’s impulse complete. It is now a thing inside him pawing to get out. He longs to see this bubbling stuff pouring into that Form as the housewife longs to see the new jam pouring into the clean jam jar. This nags him all day long and gets in the way of his work and his sleep and his meals. It’s like being in love.6
Whatever argument the Christian apologist hopes to present, he must first find, or make, its frame. There must be form, else the idea comes to nothing. There must actually be bones to breathe life into. Once an argument has found its form, once logos and poiema are made to work in harmony, the apologist will have conjured up something that demands to get out.
Lewis would likely be aghast at my bringing in an American modernist to support this point, but it might be helpful here to mention William Carlos Williams. Williams, recognized by most to be the father of modernist American poetry, famously said, “No ideas but in things.”7 Williams’s “no ideas but in things” is a way of fixing ideas within imagery. The concrete image, the granular metaphor, the clarion analogy — these best serve the idea. Access to bare ideas proves difficult, so we’re left with the imaginary ways to get at them.
THE (CREATIVE) ROAD TO APOLOGETICS
Contemporary novelist Cormac McCarthy is another creative voice from whose work apologists might learn something about form. While not nearly the spiritually minded writer that Charles Williams was, though more theologically interested than William Carlos Williams, McCarthy possesses the rare ability to affix idea to form. In his Pulitzer Prize – winning novel, The Road, McCarthy presents us with an agonizing story of a father and his son moving along an unknown path in hopes of surviving an insistently hopeless postapocalyptic world. Early in the novel, in a vividly desperate scene when we’re just beginning to relate to the afflicted pair, the father looks out over a desolate landscape and is reminded of the only certainty life has left him — “He knew only that his child was his warrant. He said: If he is not the word of God God never spoke.”8
Incarnation. Revelation. A sacrificial adoration for a son. Moral duty. All shaped by memorable metaphor, fixed to the form of a father’s love for his son. In presenting a case for the love God the Father has for Christ the Son, or for analogizing the nature of revelation in the person of Jesus, the apologist could do no better. The apologist, however, must strive to do as well. The apologist, as agent of the science and art of Christian defense, artisan of logos and poiema, must mind the ground of his creativity as well as his orthodoxy.
As defenders of an ancient faith in a modern world, we will not run short on the need for well-wrought ideas. Evidence-based arguments for the faith will only prove more necessary in a world less welcoming of evidence in service to faith. Yet, without those forms by which our arguments might be enduringly embodied, the ferment of our ideas could very well fade into rhetorical oblivion. Make no mistake: doctrine must be learned, Scripture studied, evidence mined. But let’s not forget that the burden must be carried, the syllogism crafted, the son spoken over with poetic beauty. No logos but in poiema.
Corey Latta holds MAs in religion and English as well as a PhD in twentieth century literature. He is the author of C. S. Lewis and the Art of Writing, When the Eternal Can Be Met: The Bergsonian Theology of Time in the Works of C. S. Lewis, T. S. Eliot, and W. H. Auden and coauthor of Titans: How Superheroes Can Help Us Make Sense of a Polarized World. His forthcoming volume is called Serving the Work: Reflections on Christ and Creativity (2018).
“Too often in our contemporary culture, theologically informed beliefs are not considered a legitimate claim to knowledge.” — Frank Beckwith