The Apologetics of Hope: Imagination and Witness in the Age of Authenticity with Special Consideration of the Work of George MacDonald and Marilynne Robinson

Publication Date



This dissertation argues that Christian witness in a secular age is in need of a more comprehensive understanding of how the dialectic of faith and doubt is experienced imaginatively, and not just intellectually. Doubters require more than good arguments; they require an aesthetic sense, an imaginative vision, and a poetic embodiment of Christianity: what it feels like to live with Christian faith. I offer an account of how imaginative engagement is central to the apologetic task by framing secularity as an imaginative crisis and then exploring two case studies of imaginative apologetics, to construct a theological model of how imaginative engagement may open a new space to consider the possibilities of faith.

Chapter one draws from Charles Taylor’s account of secularity to sketch the missiological context for my argument. I seek to demonstrate that secularity is an imaginative crisis: finding faith is integrated with the quest for authenticity, a felt sense of ownership of the direction and design of one’s life. Authenticity can have both thick and thin versions, and Taylor’s account of secularity highlights the need for an apologetic method that invites thicker versions of authenticity.

Chapter two considers apologetic methodologies in light of Taylor’s diagnosis. I orient the discussion around Friedrich Schleiermacher’s apologetic of feeling, drawing attention to his followers as well as to his critics. The goal is to listen to these voices and to highlight the need for broader theological horizons against which a thick version of authenticity can emerge.

Chapter three seeks to provide such horizons by articulating a constructive theology of the imagination. I distinguish between three overlapping aspects of imagining: aesthetic sense (where a world of meaning impresses itself on the imagination), orienting vision (where the imagination expresses itself towards the world), and poetic practice (where space is made for negotiation of sense and sight). This also requires a description of how God engages, how sin impairs, and how grace renews the human imagination, and I work within the Calvinist theological tradition to give such an account.

Having articulated the problem and sketched theological horizons for imaginative apologetics, the next two chapters seek generative models for imaginative apologetics in a Calvinist key. George MacDonald and Marilynne Robinson provide these models. MacDonald and Robinson rarely make direct arguments. Rather, they thrust the reader into the midst of stories that imaginatively embody the faith’s appeal to the human person. My goal was to discern MacDonald’s and Robinson’s method not primarily as rhetorical strategy but as the natural out-working of their theology. For both thinkers, this theology of divine address works itself out in novels that look for God in the most ordinary experiences of life.

In chapter six I draw the first five chapters together to sketch the contours of an imaginative apologetic approach. I offer three desiderata for an imaginative apologetic approach, corresponding to the three dimensions of imagining outlined in chapter three.

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy in Theology (PhD in Theology)

First Advisor

Dyrness, William

Document Type





George MacDonald, Marilynne Robinson, Hope, Witness bearing (Christianity) in literature, Apologetics


Missions and World Christianity


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