In Conversation with Dr. Donald T. Williams
Dr. Donald T. Williams is a friend of mine, a kindred spirit, and a Renaissance man, being well versed in literary studies, philosophy, and theology. He can recite sections of classic poems and novels from memory and even composes sonnets on airplane rides. Professor Williams is the author of nine books and has written the most extensive exposition and analysis of C. S. Lewis’s theology (Deeper Magic: The Theology Behind the Writings of C. S. Lewis) as well as a book on Tolkien called, An Encouraging Thought. The Christian Worldview in the Writings of J. R. R. Tolkien. Because I am one of the sad people who could never read Lord of the Rings and have been feeling bad about it for forty or more years, I read An Encouraging Thought and was encouraged by it. Perhaps I can bluff my way through Tolkien a bit now.
He holds a BA in English from Taylor University, an M.Div. from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and a PhD in Medieval and Renaissance Literature from the University of Georgia. He is the R. A. Forrest Scholar and Professor of English at Toccoa Falls College in the hills of NE Georgia. I was intrigued to see how he would answer the following questions. You will be as well. I encourage you read his books, see him lecture, and invite him to speak on the many subjects about which he is competent.
Bold print = Douglas Groothuis, Professor at Denver Seminary and author of Christian Apologetics: A Comprehensive case for Biblical Faith and other books
light print = Donald T. Williams.
What is God’s calling on your life?
When I was in high school I had a really good pastor, Paul R. Van Gorder (later an associate teacher with Radio Bible Class). He did such a good job of explaining the Scriptures and showing the majesty of their theology, the beauty of the Christ they presented, and the practical relevance of their teaching for life, that I found myself praying, “Lord, it would be really neat if someday you would let me do for others what this man is doing for me.” That was the first hint I had that I might be called to the ministry.
But I learned later that it was not the beginning of that calling at all. By the time I was in college, I loved Jesus, the Gospel, and the Bible, and thought that there was nothing I would rather do than preach them, teach them, and write about them if God would open the doors. And it seemed that He was doing so. It was only later that I learned what Paul Harvey would call “the rest of the story.”
The day I graduated from seminary (Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, June, 1976)), my father took me aside. “Your grandfather,” he said, “always wanted a son to go into the ministry. But I was not called in that way. Then when you were born, he took you into his arms and said, ‘This is the one. This boy will be the answer to my prayers.’ He died when you were five. And I have never told you this, because I did not want it to influence you—if you were called, I wanted it to be from the Lord and not from some pressure we had put on you. But today, I think I should tell you this story.”
Make of that what you will. I was floored. I still don’t think I have ever quite gotten over that moment. And I am forever grateful for my pastor’s example, my grandfather’s faith, my Dad’s wisdom, and God’s grace, without which the other factors would have been wholly in vain.
How would you describe yourself as a scholar and communicator?
As a scholar I am truth-driven, and I think that truth is never fully seen as truth until it is seen in relation to God and His glory, which means being seen in relation to Christ. So I don’t fit very well into the scholarly world, even the Evangelical scholarly world. I am always trying to promote Renaissance (a recovery of the life of the mind), Reformation (a recovery of sound doctrine), and Revival (a recovery of vital Christian spirituality). I’ll pursue those goals through any medium open to me, whether it be a book, a scholarly article, a sermon, a lecture, a conversation, or a poem. I consider them all of a piece. I hope each one gives some small glimpse of the Vision: the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.
Do you really read Lord of the Rings every year, and if so why?
I read The Lord of the Rings twice the year I discovered it, 1968, and have read it almost every year since (I think I’ve missed two or three). I’ve written a whole book on why: An Encouraging Thought: The Christian Worldview in the Writings of J. R. R. Tolkien (Cambridge, OH: Christian Publishing House, 2018). In brief, it keeps me grounded in the ability to see the world as it is: full of goodness and beauty by its creation but corrupted and fallen, subject to horrible evil but never without hope because “Bilbo was meant to find the Ring, and not by its maker.” It is the setting of a Quest that is “not wholly in vain.” I am subject to melancholy and pessimism and need to be reminded that there is a Light from beyond the circles of the world that Sauron’s clouds can never put out—not just by being told that it is so, but by being shown it: by having the reality of it presented to me through incarnational imagination.
What should every Christian know about the power of the imagination?
C. S. Lewis taught that reason is the organ of truth, and imagination is the organ of meaning. Reason tells me whether a proposition corresponds with or contradicts other propositions I have come to accept—more importantly, whether it corresponds with or contradicts the world itself. That correspondence is truth. But without imagination I would not know what those propositions meant in the first place. I think he was right.
As I said above, I don’t just need to be told the truth; I also need to be shown it. When imagination faithfully does that, it makes it possible for us to have meaningful truth, which not only convinces us but moves us.
For more on this topic see my essay “Meaningful Truth: The Critical Role of Imagination in the Work of C. S. Lewis,” Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity 31:6 (Nov./Dec. 2018): 34-37.
If you could design a college curriculum for the humanities, what would it include?
Latin. Logic. The classics. Scientific literacy. Competence in all those skills, not just exposure to them. Then as much history, philosophy, and literature as you can fit in on that foundation (assuming these course are not taught by Post-Modern ideological hacks more interested in indoctrination than education).
I’ve heard admissions counselors from seminaries, law schools, and journalism schools consistently give the same advice to college students: out of English, Philosophy, and History, major in one and minor in one of the other two. That will be the best preparation for graduate study you can get. If it’s taught right, it’s also pretty good preparation for life. If you know how to think and you are not always reinventing the wheel when you do your thinking, i.e., not doing it in a vacuum but in the light of what we have learned over the years, you can excel at just about anything.
For more on this topic, see my essay “To Spread His Glory: Four Theses on Christian Education,” Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity 32:4 (July/August 2019): 30-34.
What do you find most important about the work and life of C.S. Lewis?
Nobody ever has outdone Lewis as a role model for the integration of reason and imagination. We have some really good rational apologists. We have not done so well as an Evangelical movement in fostering those who work with imagination. But what nobody in any movement has ever done as well as Lewis is show us both working in tandem the way they are supposed to do. You get superb rational arguments in the popular apologetics advanced by means of apt analogies that come from the imagination (the hall and rooms of a house for the church and its denominations). You get rational apologetic argument seamlessly embedded in works of fantasy like Narnia (Professor Kirk’s use of the Trilemma, Puddleglum’s use of the ontological argument with the Green Witch). Neither set of books would be as good without the cooperation of both reason and imagination.
I’ve written a whole book on this and other reasons why Lewis matters: Deeper Magic: The Theology behind the Writings of C. S. Lewis (Baltimore: Square Halo Press, 2016).
What is the biggest mistake Christians make in the realm of the intellect?
It is twofold. First we despise the intellect, and then we over-react to that rejection of it by trying too hard to be seen as respectable by our secular peers in the academy. For too many of our Evangelical intellectuals, that quest for respect drives our work more than the quest for faithfulness. It is a pathology we see playing out again and again. Respect from the enemies of truth is not affirmation; it is shame.
What are the five books that have influenced you most and why?
It is hard to say if these are really the top five—a number of others are complaining loudly that they have an equal claim to be in the list. But these five were certainly very important in my development. In chronological order of composition:
John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion. I was prejudiced against it when I first read it, but I discovered to my surprise not a man in love with religious determinism but a man in love with the glory of God and the grace of Christ. He also bases his systematics on being the greatest exegete of his generation. Even if you don’t always end up agreeing with him, you need to learn these things from him!
Sir Philip Sidney, Defense of Poesy. The foundation of a Christian approach to literature and to education. The philosopher has the precept, but he is “so misty to be conceived that you may wade in him until you be old before you find sufficient reason to be honest.” The Historian deals with concrete reality, but is limited to what has been and cannot talk (as a Historian) about what ought to be. “Now doth the peerless Poet perform both.” Like the Historian, he deals with a story conveyed by concrete imagery, but unlike the Historian and like the Philosopher, he is free to pursue the Ideal. Thus he wins the prize in pursuit of “the end of learning,” which is “virtuous action.” I wrote a whole book, Inklings of Reality: Essays toward a Christian Philosophy of Letters (Lynchburg: Lantern Hollow Press, 2012), trying to show why this matters.
C. S. Lewis, Miracles. Not Lewis’s most popular work of apologetics (that would be Mere Christianity), but in my mind his best, the most profound, and most stimulating. This is how apologetics should be done. He not only teaches you the content of apologetics; he teaches you (by example) the craft.
J. R. R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings. We already discussed this book above.
Francis Schaeffer, The God Who is There. I’ll discuss this book below.
Honorable Mention: Augustine, Confessions; Dante, The Divine Comedy; Baldassare Castiglione, The Boke of the Courtier; Shakespeare, Works; John Milton, Paradise Lost; Jonathan Edwards, A Treatise on the Religious Affections; Gerard Manley Hopkins, Poems; G. K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man; Robert Frost, Poems; C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man; The Chronicles of Narnia; The Space Trilogy; Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge.
9. Who is the most important author that Christians never read?
It’s getting to be Francis Schaeffer. I used to teach a course called Humanities 103, which was a survey of Western culture heavily informed by Schaeffer’s cultural apologetic, required of all freshmen. For a quarter of a century after his death, they would start out knowing that he was an important apologist and opponent of abortion, and a few would have already read him. Starting about ten years ago, they would never even have heard of him without that course.
Why does it matter? Schaeffer understood that in a post-Christian, post-truth world, Christians could no longer afford to be ignorant of issues once the province only of philosophy majors. He understood how worldview impacts life and culture. He understood that unless we are presenting the Gospel as “true truth,” we are not presenting the Gospel. He understood that unless the Lordship of Christ touches all of life and all of culture, it is an empty slogan. He understood these things with a combination of cultural insight and biblical faithfulness that was unprecedented in his day and which we have not seen since. We still need very much to hear his voice.
We should read all of Schaeffer, but we should start with The God Who is There and True Spirituality, the books he held as the foundation of all his work. Later provocative books like The Great Evangelical Disaster or The Christian Manifesto read very differently as the extensions and applications of principles laid down there than they do in isolation. Schaeffer might have been naïve to expect people to read his books in the order he preferred, but friends of his work today will do well to urge their students to read The God Who is There first and often.
Dr. Williams’s latest book is The Young Christian’s Survival Guide: Common Questions Young Christians are Asked about God, the Bible, and the Christian Faith Answered (Cambridge, OH: Christian Publishing House, 2019).