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Online Teaching Tips

Online Teaching Tips

Dr Holly Ordway

For all the college profs suddenly faced with teaching online with approximately zero prep, I wrote a thread of miscellaneous tips from 7 years of teaching online very happily for the fully-online MA in Apologetics at Houston Baptist University. I built all my own courses, too. Here are all my tweets, arranged now by category.

Note: when I tweeted the original thread, I just jumped in and got some material out there. Then I realized I wanted to add more, and did so. Later, I realized that the threading was unclear (I don’t usually make long Twitter threads or add to them, so this was a new tech for me). So I made a tweet that collected the different sub-threads more clearly. Lastly, I had some requests to pull this all together into a document, so I did so – and decided to take this opportunity to arrange the tips by category, to be more useful.

Then I realized that all this actually MODELS what I’m saying about online teaching! Jump in, with what you have, in the mode that is available; don’t worry about whether or not it’s working perfectly – just start engaging; in response to your audience, go back and adapt/reframe as needed; don’t try to be perfect; keep it simple.

Patience, kindness, a can-do spirit, humility, and a sense of humor are all really helpful. Even if you go back to teaching residential courses after this, you’ll have learned a lot about teaching from this experience. Godspeed!

Feel free to share these tips; just, please, include my name and website ( in the attribution, please.

So, here are the tips:

General course design:

Focus on the essentials: what is the primary nature of your course? if it’s a discussion course, on discussion. If it’s a writing course, on feedback and revision. If it’s a lecture course, on providing lectures.

Be as old-school as you can. No bells & whistles. Email and discussion boards are all you REALLY need. You can always add other things later. All those Blackboard / Moodle / etc. features that look great if you can figure ’em out? JUST BACK AWAY. Use the forums.

Don’t try to do synchonous activities (like live video chats) unless you’ve done them before. Even then, try not to. Go asynchronous. Your students may be in the same time zone as you, but trying to figure out tech with time pressure & at home w/other people around: much harder.

Embrace the positive aspects of online. You can require ALL your students to participate, including the shy introverted ones who never raise their hand in class. And ALL the students can have a voice, not just the ones who process quickly enough to respond on the spot.

Other positives: You can ask students to “go deep”: discuss an idea at length over a whole week. You can make forums for group work and, because you can see their posts, you can ensure that everyone participates. Students can post rough drafts or outlines & get feedback.

Lastly — have realistic expectations. It’s OK for this all to be a bit of a mess. Teaching online effectively is a skill like any other teaching skill: you get better at it with time and practice (I’ve had a lot of that!) Don’t expect marvels of yourself or the class.

PRO TIP for administration: Trust that your faculty are skilled teachers. Provide resources but don’t impose what a consultant says is best. Much of what these “learning management” programs/consultants are about is based on what makes money for their company. (Alas.)

Administrators: please remember that subjects differ. An online class will look different for English, accounting, biology, business, etc. Faculty teaching styles differ: this is good, students want real profs, not robots. /end admin soapbox.

Back to tips for faculty. Students benefit from fundamental consistency (like expectations that they’ll participate) but they don’t need or want all classes to be the same. Know your teaching style. Your online class won’t have the same feel as a colleague’s. This is fine!

Figure out your expectations and make them clear – and be prepared to answer questions about them. Repeatedly. Be patient.

BONUS TIP: Less is more. REALLY. No, you don’t need to have a video for every lesson/unit. No, you don’t need supplemental materials and an interactive quiz (ugh!) for each topic. YES you can stick with the one book you had assigned for this week. There will be plenty to discuss.

Relating to students:

BE PATIENT. Students are unsettled by new things. (Aren’t we all?!?) They’re worried about being able to do their work. They WILL ask questions about things that seem obvious. Answer them patiently. Your calm and patient responses will shape their experiences.

Use this as an exercise in empathy. How does it make YOU feel to have to teach in a new format, with anxiety about other things in your life? Well, that’s what ALL our students feel like when they start classes – just because we’re used to how classes run, doesn’t mean they are.

Be honest with students about any difficulties you have with technology, etc. If you can’t upload docs or get the videos working, admit it! The “we’re all in this together” spirit helps make for a better classroom (and students appreciate a prof who’s recognizably human.)

Pro Tip: Be accommodating. Remember that some students may have difficult/distracting home environments; they may not have access to tech at home & have to use the library — and have to travel to get there; they may suddenly have small siblings at home to care for.

Students will remember your kindness a lot longer than they’ll remember any particular homework assignment.

Students need CONSISTENT responses but NOT instant ones. Set a time daily for logging in & responding to emails/messages. Finish and leave the rest to the next day. This makes a healthy boundary for you & students relax as they learn your response time.

BONUS TIP: Teaching online can be tougher because it can feel like you have to be “on” 24/7. Set a time for your teaching each day (you need to have your time spread out more than in face-to-face teaching) so you’re not always at the computer. Take Sunday completely OFF. Reach out to colleagues for mutual support & encouragement.

Moving lectures online:

Keep it simple with lectures. Do AUDIO not video by default. Video can be hard to get on a weak connection. Also, it’s harder to do well.

“Keep lectures under 15 (or 5) minutes” is a commonplace of advice. I agree in general: do multiple short lectures so students can easily find and review what they need & the file size is manageable.

But remember: audiences differ & the interest factor is key. There is no one length that is ideal. Your students may well be watching hourlong YouTube videos on topics that they care about & listening to long complex podcasts. Don’t assume your students have weak attention spans.

A short lecture is great for the PROF as it forces us to focus! We don’t have a captive audience in class! They can turn it off if it’s rambling and not useful. DO NOT lecture extemporaneously. Much harder than it looks. Write your text & read it. (Or at least have notes.)

Adapting assignments:

Simplify your assignments. Cull the smaller ones; don’t try to replicate all in-class activities. Focus on the most important pieces. Less is more.

Clarify directions. Then clarify them some more. All the things you’re used to explaining in class after you give the assignment? You have to spell it out. Make sure you tell students that they should ASK QUESTIONS and above all make sure you MEAN IT and welcome those questions.

Remember the three Ps: Panic Produces Plagiarism. Being asked to work online, some otherwise honest students may freak out and act unwisely. Now’s the time to raise your essay-prompt game! This is actually good for YOU too. Makes essays more interesting to read.

Write new prompts that require discussion of ideas from class, or apply the ideas. Try new forms, like dialogues or creative options like stories. And make sure that you recognize this is harder & reassure students: the work will be rougher and it’s OK! (And BE OK with it.)

Better, more distinctive essay prompts = less plagiarism, because students CAN’T just copy / buy stuff online. (And if they do, they’ll fail anyway for not doing what the prompt asks, so it’s self-policing to a great extent.)

Crafting assignments to be near-impossible to plagiarize (for ex, requiring a ‘process’ component: “How did you apply what you learned in class?”) helps ALL students learn & be engaged.

BONUS TIP: Keep documents simple. Students don’t really care if there are nice headers and colored fonts. They don’t care if your document is ‘boring’ plain text (like this one is!). They care about FINDING THE INFO THEY NEED.

If you haven’t done timed online tests before, Do. NOT. Start. Now. (It can be done, but it’s MUCH more complicated than it seems. BTDT.) If you rely on in-class tests, consider if you can make essay questions, or do tutorials so you have a (scheduled) Q&A with each student.

Discussion forums:

Figure out how you’ll measure participation, and make sure that it’s clear, moderate in amount, & easily measurable by you, like X number of substantial posts per week. Not: “x number of posts, y number of replies, z number of responses to others’ responses…” (You’ll thank me.)

By the way, the old-school way of just doing hash marks on a sheet of paper with the students’ names on it = perfectly good way of tracking participation. No need to wrestle with online “participation” or “attendance” features.

Don’t grade individual posts or threads. Way too much work for you, stressful for students, & discourages exploratory discussion/asking questions. Grade participation holistically by engagement, not mastery of the material.

PRO TIP: You know how there are a few students who are great at participation & extra-responsible? Designate them as Discussion Leaders and give them a chance to exercise leadership in the classroom. Rotate new students in after a couple of weeks if desired.

Some tips for discussion forums:

1) Post an intro to the week’s material: what you’d say at the start of class.

2) Provide a selection of discussion questions & allow students to exercise agency by choosing from amongst them.

3) Praise good posts & ask follow-up questions.

4) Tell students to use descriptive subject headers for posts (seriously, it helps)

5) & to flag questions for you w/ “QUESTION FOR PROF. X” so you’re sure to see it.

6) If they email you with a good Q, say “Good Q, go ask it in class so everyone can learn!” (& answer it there!)

7) Make a separate forum for general chat: remember, students don’t have the opportunity to catch up with their friends after class now.

8) Make your discussion topics directly relate to the assignments (write better assignments as needed)

9) Think about the questions you’d ask in live discussion & learn to ask them online. It’s the same process, just spread out over time (& potentially involving more students!).

10) Direct students to particular concepts / passages in a text. Ask how & why questions. How does this work? Why does this matter? Online discussion has many of the features of small-group/reflective writing activities bundled into class discussion.

If the discussion topics are clearly related to the assignments, & assignments require critical thinking, then students will have a natural reason to engage (other than “I have to participate for my grade”). This boosts motivation & engagement.

PRO TIP: Assign each student to write a reading response to a section of the assigned texts (divide it up each week). Make the RR include 1) summary, 2) discussion of the ideas, and 3) a couple of questions for discussion. This will be an eye-opener for you…

Assigned Reading Responses show where students are missing or misunderstanding key ideas. This might never show up in regular discussion, & students naturally avoid (or gloss over) topics they don’t understand when doing assignments. But all is laid bare in the RR.

This allows for genuinely interactive online teaching: you find where students are confused, you ask leading questions (“Are you SURE that’s what the author is saying here?”) & let the class try to figure it out, and THEN you confirm correct answers & supply answers as needed.

Patience, patience, patience! With your students, with your colleagues, and with yourself.

Pro tip: directly praise questions that reveal confusion about the material. “I’m glad you asked” & “Great, that allows me to explain” = reassurance on how learning happens in a new format.

BONUS TIP: Discussion forums may seem like an ‘extra’ not an essential, but they can be the heart of the learning experience for your students: if they’re graded holistically (so students feel free to have genuine questions / explore new ideas without getting a low forum grade), structured and guided (with discussion questions & student leaders), and you are present but don’t micromanage.

Interacting with students:

Students need CONSISTENT responses but NOT instant ones. Have time daily for logging in & responding to messages. This is healthy for you (so you’re not “on” 24/7) & students relax as they learn your response time.

Pro tip: ask students to share briefly in class how they’re managing / what their circumstances are. This reassures students that you care & helps you assess if your expectations are reasonable or need adjustment.

Encourage students to connect with you. Try emailing a doc with assignment directions to students in addition to having it on the platform. Then ask students to reply with a picture of something fun like a kitten. Then you’ll know they got it & it opens a line of communication for things they might not ask in class.

BONUS TIP: If a student doesn’t reply as directed in that email, then reach out individually: “Hey, I haven’t heard from you. Is everything OK?” This makes a huge difference: students realize that being online doesn’t mean being invisible.

PRO TIP: develop a more relaxed policy for late papers. Students freaking out bc they did the work but their WiFi went down or they can’t figure out how to submit it: not conducive to learning. Tell students to let you know if they have a prob & then be kind and charitable.

Are you stressed? Yes? So are your students (probably more so). Keep things simple for everyone’s sake & don’t be afraid to drop things that don’t work.

BONUS TIP: When responding to students (discussion forums or emails), use their names! And sign emails with your name, not just your official auto-signature (I always signed off w/ “Cheers, Dr. O”). This humanizes the interaction. Little things count.

Closing thoughts:

You might not have chosen to teach online, if given the option, but it’s a legitimate mode, DIFFERENT from face to face. It can be done badly: so can residential. It can be done very well. It has its own strengths & weaknesses. Explore it for what it is, not what it isn’t.

As someone who taught for years in a residential classroom & then switched to 100% online: these modes are not in competition. Both are valuable; they meet different needs & serve (usually) different populations. But GOOD TEACHING and HUMAN KINDNESS & RESPECT transcend modes.

Fellowship & relationships have to be built more intentionally online; it’s easier for students (and faculty) to feel isolated. OK. So, make the effort to connect and provide opportunites for casual chat; make the effort to respond to students by name. The effort is worth it.

It’s not about the technology per se: it’s about using technology to interact with our students, build relationships with them, help them to learn, mentor them, advise them. Keep this firmly in sight & you’ll do fine.

Be the online teacher you’d want to have.

Be the online teacher you’d want your kids to have.

It’s not about the tech or the apps; it’s about helping people learn & grow. You can do it. And it’s beautiful to see when it happens.


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A Poem: Lewis at Poets’ Corner, 22 November 2013


Lewis at Poets' Corner coverOn the 22nd of November, 2013, the 50th anniversary of his death, C.S. Lewis was formally recognized as one of the great figures of English letters, with his Memorial in Poets’ Corner of Westminster Abbey placing him in the company of such literary stars as Shakespeare and Chaucer and Austen. I had the very great privilege of being present at the Memorial Service, and now I am delighted and honored to have my reflection on that day included in the book C.S. Lewis at Poets’ Corner – edited by Michael Ward, who masterminded the Memorial project from start to finish, and Peter S. Williams.

Poets' Corner invitation pictureIt’s a book that captures the glorious variety of the commemorative celebrations around the historic 50th anniversary of Lewis’s death – a fitting way to honor the genius of Lewis, who wrote in so many different genres and forms, and to continue his legacy as a scholar, apologist, and writer.

As I reflected on all these events, I found myself particularly recalling the joyful experience of hearing, at the Memorial Service, the very first performance of Paul Mealor’s setting of Lewis’s poem “Love’s as Warm as Tears” – a deeply moving composition for a beautiful poem.

When I remembered that November 22 is also the feast day of Saint Cecilia, patron of music, I turned to poetry to express something of the meaning of that day – and here is the result.


Lewis at Poets’ Corner, 22 November 2013

Noon, on Saint Cecilia’s day, and here

In England’s royal Abbey, I sit and watch

The sunlight streaming in, gold and clear

And pure, almost solid to the touch.

Nor is it fairy-gold; it does not fade,

For though that glorious beam of autumn light

Moved, and sank to twilight on that day,

In recollection it remains as bright.

In that golden light, the choir sings –

The notes resound in blood and bone, as if

I breathed the music in like air; it brings

Me to the point of tears, this gift

So unexpected, undeserved: a grace

To hold with joy through all my dying days.



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Come and See: The Value of Storytelling for Apologetics

The following is my contribution to the volume A New Kind of Apologist, ed. Sean McDowell. I was pleased to be able to contribute a chapter on this subject: ‘imaginative and literary apologetics’ is a vitally important approach for apologetics today. If you find this chapter interesting, do please take a look at my book, Apologetics and the Christian Imagination: An Integrated Approach to Defending the Faith, from Emmaus Road Publishing, in which I develop these ideas in much greater depth.


Come and See:
The Value of Storytelling for Apologetics

Holly Ordway

Let me tell you a story.

Once upon a time there was an atheist. Then he read a fairytale and discussed myths. As a result, he stopped being an atheist and became a Christian.

That, in the very briefest of summary, is the story of C.S. Lewis’s conversion to Christ. As a young atheist, Lewis was profoundly influenced by reading the novel Phantastes by the Christian author George MacDonald. Phantastes does not mention Christ or the Church anywhere in its pages, but it is deeply imbued with the Christian worldview. Lewis later wrote that this literary encounter was pivotal: “my imagination,” he said, “was, in a certain sense, baptized; the rest of me, not unnaturally, took longer.”

New Kind of Apologist coverBy 1931, Lewis had come to belief in God on a rational, philosophical level, but he found himself unable to accept the claims of Christianity; he couldn’t find the doctrines meaningful. Then one day Lewis walked through the grounds of Magdalen College, Oxford, in conversation with his friends J.R.R. Tolkien and Hugo Dyson. They helped him to see that Christ’s sacrifice is a story, just like the stories Lewis loved, but with the difference that it also happened in history. Doctrine became more than a dry set of propositions; Lewis realized that the two hemispheres of his life, his imagination and his reason, could be united in the Christian faith. The final barrier to belief fell. He could become a Christian as a whole person—and he did. Now he is known to millions as the author of the Chronicles of Narnia; he has a memorial in Poets’ Corner of Westminster Abbey; his books have helped countless people to know Christ.

Lewis’s conversion shows that stories matter—and not just for him, but for all of us.

We experience our own lives in terms of story. Birth announcements connect the new baby with the lives of the parents; later, graduation, wedding, 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 tales of their adventures. A bad day can become a good story when the sting has passed.

We see the basic human need for story wherever we look. Skeptics tell just-so stories to explain every aspect of our lives in terms of biology. Celebrity culture allows us to have heroes and villains. On the personal level, one of the signals of our need for narrative is that we are dissatisfied when we feel that our lives lack purpose. Our unstated expectation is that our lives have a beginning, middle, and end that make sense; we are troubled by seemingly random events, and when tragedy strikes, we ask, “Why did this happen?”

The work of apologists must always be centered upon Christ in the most robust sense possible—and that includes using both argument and story, both reason and imagination. Unfortunately, Christian apologists have often tacitly accepted the modernist, scientistic focus on empirical evidence alone, and tried to convey truth as if story didn’t matter, delivering a set of answers without regard for how the other person arrived at his questions or objections. Yes, we work to demolish false arguments and remove obstacles to belief, but we also work constructively to help people encounter and engage with Christ. And that includes telling a good story!

When I talk about using story and imagination in apologetics, I am most emphatically not talking about taking apologetics arguments and inserting them into fiction like a bitter pill hidden in a sweet treat. No! I mean something far richer and more interesting—and more effective.

To begin with, the creative impulse itself is a reflection of the image of God in each person. The great fantasy writer J.R.R. Tolkien understood this. We make stories, he said, “because we are made: and not only made, but made in the image and likeness of a Maker.”

We can see the value of stories in apologetics perhaps most clearly if we look at Scripture. God is the ultimate Storyteller, both as the Author of history and as the Author of Scripture. The inspired Word of God is in large part a narrative, the story of salvation history—a drama that might be summed up in five acts: Creation, Israel, Incarnation, Church, Apocalypse. Life stories are recounted—such as those of Abraham, Moses, David. Entire books of the Bible are written in poetry. Preeminently, the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.

One of the ways that storytelling is valuable is that it makes our apologetics incarnational. For apologetics to be incarnational is first of all to consider the implications of the “Word made flesh” on all aspects of life. We who follow Christ do not just know about him, though we can know many true things about him through the use of our reason, 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. That kind of knowledge can’t be shared directly, but it can be shown indirectly through the working of the imagination. Art, music, architecture, film, and literature all provide opportunities for people to catch a glimpse of the world as we see it in the light of Christ, to taste the goodness of God, to get a hint of something important just around the corner—something worth following up on.

Certainly that was my experience. As an adult atheist (and a hostile one!), I would never have bothered to pick up a book of Christian apologetics or theology because I was sure it was a stupid superstition. Yet the deeply meaningful world of   Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, and the profound depths of poetry by Gerard Manley Hopkins and others, gave me a glimpse of something beautiful and mysterious about the Christian faith. I didn’t believe it was true, but I was drawn, fearfully and reluctantly, to learn more. Eventually I began to investigate the claims of Christianity, and was convinced by rational argument that God existed, and even that Jesus of Nazareth died and rose from the dead.

However, I still struggled, unable to grasp the shocking idea that God had become incarnate. It was only in rereading the Chronicles of Narnia, and encountering once again the Christ-figure of the great lion Aslan, that I was able to connect what my reason told me with what my imagination showed me—and then to lay down my arms in surrender to Christ.

Appreciating the incarnational nature of Christianity includes realizing that God made us with bodies and emotions, as well as minds and souls, and that he placed us in the physical world that he had made—and he called all of this good, even very good. The future we look forward to is not a disembodied spirit-heaven, but rather a new heaven and a new earth, where we will have glorified, resurrected bodies. Thus, any fully-orbed presentation of the truth about ourselves and God’s plan for us cannot be a disembodied, purely intellectual truth; it must truthfully reflect our nature as created beings.

Part of being incarnate means that it is good and right for us to have emotions and express them—as our Lord did, for example, by weeping at the tomb of Lazarus and by getting angry with the money changers in the temple. The fact that little children wanted to come to him suggests that he had a welcoming physicality and a warm personality that they instinctively trusted and found attractive. He wasn’t just a walking dictionary of Christian theology.

Literature and film offer a mode of doing apologetics incarnationally, putting meaningful flesh on bare-bones concepts like justice, faith, sin, or love, and showing that truth is never merely a private affair, but also shapes how we relate with others. In a good story, we relate to the characters as if they were real people, feeling sympathy or dislike for them, experiencing nervousness, sorrow, or joy at the plot twists that involve them. We reflect on whether their actions were right or wrong, wise or foolish, and wonder what we might do in their situation, whether it’s President Bartlet making a decision of state on The West Wing, or Elizabeth Bennet forming an opinion about Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice. Stories allow us to present truth in such a way that it impacts the whole person: emotions and intellect, relationships and self-knowledge.

To be sure, literature’s power of evoking emotion is in itself neutral; the question is, to what end is it oriented? Authors can use the power of language and storytelling to make evil things seem harmless or even appealing. (Consider pornography or the manipulation of desires by advertising.) But any good thing can be twisted; this does not remove its proper use. For the apologist, the point is that emotional response to the images we see and the language we hear and read is an innate part of being human; people are not, never will be, and indeed cannot be purely rational and unaffected by emotion. If they were, they would have ceased to be fully human. In a rightly ordered human being, rational understanding is accompanied by appropriate emotional response: St. Paul directs us to rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep.

Furthermore, being incarnate means that we are creatures who live in the flow of time, and are thus naturally predisposed to absorb truth in the form of narrative. When our Lord tells us that we must become like little children to enter the kingdom of heaven, perhaps he is also reminding us of the goodness of the child’s instinctive cry, “Tell me a story!” The story of Christ, for instance, involves expectation of his birth, then the actual event of his nativity (in dangerous circumstances), his childhood, his public ministry, his passion and death, his resurrection and ascension. The Church calendar enables us each year to relive this drama and in a sense to reenact it, moving through it sequentially, in time, rather than stepping outside it as if we were more than human, turning it into an abstract system of propositions that only Mr. Spock would really value. The power of story allows the apologist to transform abstract truth into something that the reader or listener can engage with.

The Gospel is the greatest story ever told—but as apologists, are we telling it for all it’s worth? We’ve all seen movie posters and book covers that give us a vivid image and a tagline for the story—hinting at the Adventure! Romance! Suspense! that awaits us. The tagline is not the story itself: it’s intended to draw us in, so that we’ll enter the movie theater or sit down with the book.

All too often, though, we allow the Gospel to remain as a movie poster or a book cover that has some adjectives and abstract nouns attached—salvation, redemption, hope—without immersing people in the flesh-and-blood drama of it. If we move beyond using individual verses and passages as proof texts and present them as part of the grand narrative of salvation history, we can better help people experience the fullness of what Scripture has to say, rather than reducing Scripture to a mere reference footnote. The Gospels don’t merely recount that Jesus rose from the dead: they dramatize it. We meet the distraught Mary Magdalene at the empty tomb, and the bewildered and downcast disciples trudging along the road to Emmaus, before they—and we—encounter the risen Lord.

The stories of Christians through the past two thousand years provide another form of apologetics. Consider St. Paul and St. Peter, St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Francis of Assisi, William Wilberforce and Mother Teresa, and so many more. We could simply talk about missionary zeal and solid doctrine, loving God with mind as well as heart, and respecting the dignity of all people—but these ideas have much more meaning when they are embodied in the stories of real men and women. St. Paul’s shipwrecks and hairsbreadth escapes from death, St. Thomas’s quiet work writing millions of words of philosophy and theology (and a few wonderful hymns), Wilberforce’s decades-long antislavery campaign, or Mother Teresa’s tireless care for the poor in the slums of Calcutta, are the sorts of stories that make people sit up and take notice. Examples of conspicuous holiness and goodness (even by secular standards) may help people to wonder: What motivated that person? How could I gain some of that joy, some of that strength?

Stories remind us of the complexity of life and something of the mystery of Christian faith. Consider the parable of the prodigal son, told by the master storyteller himself. Here is the story of a young man who thinks there’s a much more exciting life ahead for him than being at home. He squanders his inheritance and finds himself in a faraway country, hungry and lonely, all too aware that he doesn’t deserve any help. Ashamed, he trudges back, hoping to get a menial job—only to find his dad running out to embrace him, even to give him a party!

Yes, the parable is “about” God’s love and mercy—but these words are embodied in the story. It is in the particulars of this sore-hearted, sore-footed young man, who can scarcely believe that his father is really taking him back into his home, that we encounter the meaning of conversion, repentance, forgiveness. Most importantly, the reader can imagine himself or herself into the story—and the more vividly realized the world of the story, the more likely it is that the reader will want to inhabit that story and experience it imaginatively… and perhaps begin to ask, “Could it possibly be true?”

Storytelling matters for apologetics because a story is, ultimately, a reflection of what it means to be a Christian. Our faith is an adventure: “The road goes ever on and on,” says Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit. As Christian apologists, we do not merely show that there is a road, we invite people to join us on it, headed toward the heavenly Jerusalem to meet our Lord and King. “Come and see,” we say. “Join us in this story.”


Taken from A New Kind of Apologist

Copyright © 2016 Sean McDowell

Published by Harvest House Publishers

Eugene, Oregon 97402

Used by Permission

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A Thanksgiving Sonnet

This sonnet came out of a delightful friendly competition – to write a Petrarchan sonnet on the theme of ‘Thanksgiving.’ As it happens, Malcolm Guite and I both ended up with references to Charles Williams in our sonnets! Here is Malcolm’s excellent sonnet – which also appears in his volume Sounding the Seasons, which you should buy straightaway if you haven’t yet – and here is mine:


I have no words of praise and thanks today

That would suffice to even make a start,

But only empty hands, a quiet heart,

A joyful debt that I cannot repay.

The dry and empty cup can truly say

The measure of its need; now not in part

But wholly filled with light and love, what art

Of song or verse can praise enough, this day?

O Morning Star! If any word is true,

It points to you, the end of all desire,

And draws its truth from you, the hidden place

That all will find who seek. This gift from you

I’ll praise with words you give: through dark and fire

I’ll sing and pray with coinherent grace.

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Tolkien, Morris, and the Dead Marshes: An Unrecognized Connection


“Where did The Lord of the Rings come from?” This question has interested me for a long time – especially the question of Tolkien’s modern sources. Over the last year and a half, my research has taken form in the book I’m currently working on – Tolkien’s Modern Sources.

Modern sources – really? Yes! The idea of Tolkien as immune from influence of any kind, has been persistent – in large part because of comments such as C.S. Lewis’s offhand remark, “you might as well (to adapt the White King) try to influence a bandersnatch.”[1] However, recent scholarship, most notably Diana Glyer’s The Company They Keep: C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien as Writers in Community, has successfully challenged this misconception.[2]

Similarly, although many critics have explored Tolkien’s use of medieval source material,[3] and John Garth has brilliantly demonstrated in Tolkien and the Great War that Tolkien’s experiences shaped his writing, most critics seem tacitly to accept Humphrey Carpenter’s image of Tolkien as an isolated and limited reader, who “read very little modern fiction, and took no serious notice of it.”[4]

As I did my research, though, I became increasingly convinced that Tolkien read a great deal more widely in modern literature than is generally recognized – and that these modern sources are a rich vein for discovering influences and source material for The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. I’m very excited about what I’ve found, and so I’ve decided to give a bit of a preview of some of my discoveries about William Morris….


Tolkien, Morris, and the Dead Marshes

In one of the most memorable episodes in The Lord of the Rings, Gollum leads Frodo and Sam through a treacherous and noxious marsh-land, the site of many a battle in days gone by, where dead warriors now lie submerged, pale and hideous, from whom misty flames flicker up with a fatal allure. “The tricksy lights,” says Gollum, “Candles of corpses, yes, yes. Don’t you heed them! Don’t look! Don’t follow them!”

About this episode, Tolkien famously wrote: “The Dead Marshes and the approaches to the Morannon owe something to Northern France after the Battle of the Somme.” He then goes on: “They owe more to William Morris and his Huns and Romans, as in The House of the Wolfings or The Roots of the Mountains.”[5]

Considerable attention has been paid by scholars to Tolkien’s experiences in World War I. John Garth’s magnificent Tolkien and the Great War is foremost among those studies which have investigated the impact of his war-time service on the later shape of The Lord of the Rings. That attention has been fully warranted and has enlarged our understanding of Tolkien’s epic most helpfully. However, the very brilliance of this scholarship, not unlike the tricksy candles themselves, has led scholars somewhat astray, with the result that Tolkien’s debt to Morris has been almost totally overlooked. The Dead Marshes actually “owe more to William Morris”, in Tolkien’s estimation, than they do to the Somme. Tolkien’s acknowledgement of Morris’s influence is not just a casual wave of the hand in his general direction, but specific and detailed, identifying two of his novels in particular. A careful study of these two books shows a number of very interesting and important connections between Morris’s writing and Tolkien’s.

Although Tolkien references both The House of the Wolfings and The Roots of the Mountains, it is in the latter novel that we find clear antecedents of these parts of Middle-earth.

In the last third of The Roots of the Mountains, the gathered Dalesmen and their allies advance to re-take conquered Silver-dale. Despite the pleasant name, Silver-dale has a rather Mordor-like feel to it, since we have learned that the Dusky Men are wantonly cruel and destructive overlords, indeed hardly human at all; also like Mordor it is almost inaccessible, such that the Dalesmen must be led by guides from a community of hardy folk who escaped the Dusky Men. Tolkien’s depiction of Frodo and Sam’s journey to Mordor in The Lord of the Rings may well have been inspired in part by the passage through the mountains to Silver-dale:

From the height in the pass those grey slopes seemed easy to traverse; but the warriors of the Wolf knew that it was far otherwise, for they were but the molten rock-sea that in time long past had flowed forth from Shield-broad and filled up the whole valley endlong and overthwart, cooling as it flowed, and the tumbled hedge of rock round about the green plain by the river was where the said rock-sea had been stayed by meeting with soft ground, and had heaped itself up round about the green-sward. And that great rock-flood as it cooled split in divers fashions; and the rain and weather had been busy on it for ages, so that it was worn into a maze of narrow paths, most of which, after a little, brought the wayfarer to a dead stop, or else led him back again to the place whence he had started; so that only those who knew the passes throughly could thread that maze without immeasurable labour.[6]

As Frodo and Sam begin their journey alone to Mordor, they struggle on “the barren slopes and stones of the Emyn Muil, sometimes retracing their steps because they could find no way forward, sometimes discovering that they had wandered in a circle back to where they had been hours before…. always they found its outward faces sheer, high and impassible, frowning over the plain below; beyond its tumbled skirts lay livid festering marshes where nothing moved and not even a bird was to be seen.”[7] Later, as they draw close to the Morannon, the gate of Mordor, the hobbits pass through another stony area reminiscent of the mountains of Silver-dale: the Morgai, which is “pathless” and “scored with deep ghylls.”[8]

Here we can see a connection to The Roots of the Mountains in Tolkien’s use of the word “ghyll.” The word gill, meaning ‘narrow ravine,’ is of Old Norse origin, so Tolkien would likely have encountered it in his language study, but the particular spelling ghyll is modern, and originated with Wordsworth.[9] It seems most likely that Tolkien would have encountered this distinctive spelling in Morris, rather than Wordsworth; Morris uses it repeatedly[10] in The Roots of the Mountains. The connection is made all the stronger by the fact that Tolkien uses the word only twice in The Lord of the Rings: in the passage quoted above, and in a description of the same general area from the perspective of Aragorn, Gandalf, and their army en route to the Black Gate, looking up at “a tumbled land of rocky ghylls and crags, behind which the long grim slopes of the Ephel Duath clambered up.”[11]

In The Roots of the Mountains, after passing through this rocky area, the Dalesmen find that “the ground fell steadily toward the north, and hereabout the scattered stones ceased, and on the other side of the crest the heath began to be soft and boggy, and at last so soft, that if they had not been wisely led, they had been bemired oftentimes.”[12] The image is suggestive of Gollum leading Frodo and Sam through the marshes, where “The fens grew more wet, opening into wide stagnant meres, among which it grew more and more difficult to find the firmer places where feet could tread without sinking into gurgling mud. The travellers were light, or maybe none of them would ever have found a way through.”[13] Furthermore, the Dalesmen’s journey to Silver-dale has some of the same gruesome surprises as Frodo and Sam encounter in the Dead Marshes. The scouts of the Dalesmen find evidence of the work of the Dusky Men:

they had found a man and a woman dead and stark naked hanging to the boughs of a great oak-tree deep in the wood.  This men knew for some vengeance of the Dusky Men, for it was clear to see that these poor people had been sorely tormented before they were slain.  Also the same watch had stumbled on the dead body of an old woman, clad in rags, lying amongst the rank grass about a little flow; she was exceeding lean and hunger-starved, and in her hand was a frog which she had half eaten.[14]

When, after the battle, the victorious Dalesmen enter into the recovered Hall, they find more horrors:

from the last tie-beam of the roof over the daïs dangled four shapes of men-at-arms, whom the older men of the Wolf knew at once for the embalmed bodies of their four great chieftains, who had been slain on the day of the Great Undoing; and they cried out with horror and rage as they saw them hanging there in their weapons as they had lived. … There they hung, dusty, befouled, with sightless eyes and grinning mouths, in the dimmed sunlight of the Hall, before the eyes of that victorious Host, stricken silent at the sight of them.[15]

The combination of the harsh landscape, both stony and swampy, which the Dalesmen must traverse secretly so as not to warn the Dusky Men of their coming, with the grisly touches of the dead whom they find along the way, is striking in its similarity to Frodo and Sam’s passage to Mordor. It seems likely that these passages from The Roots of the Mountains were, at least in part, the inspiration to which Tolkien referred many years later. As with other elements from these novels, these landscape images are like rough sketches that Tolkien transformed into full-color paintings. What Morris was able to suggest, Tolkien developed with rich detail and meaning.


Further Connections

The Dead Marshes connection is one of many that I’ve found with Morris’s novels The House of the Wolfings and The Roots of the Mountains. In The House of the Wolfings, we see a precursor of Tolkien’s Elves – especially Galadriel – in the character of Wood-Sun, and an intriguing possible source for Bilbo’s mithril vest. In both novels, we see women-warrior figures who prefigure Éowyn in intriguing ways – especially the character of the Bride, in The Roots of the Mountains. Other connections include Morris’s distinctive blending of prose and verse, which Tolkien adopts as a feature of both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, place-names, word choices, and themes.

But Morris was not the only modern author with an influence on Tolkien – I’m also tracing connections between Tolkien’s work and that of authors such as MacDonald, Haggard, Dunsany, and Chesterton, as well as others who are almost forgotten today – seeing, for instance, the possible origins of Goldberry’s description in a book called Dream English by Tolkien’s friend Wilfred Childe.

All of this is going into my new book: Tolkien’s Modern Sources. I’m excited!

[1] C.S. Lewis, letter to Charles A. Brady, Jan. 5, 1957. The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, Volume III. Ed. Walter Hooper. New York: HarperCollins, 2007. 824.

[2] Glyer has demonstrated that Lewis and Tolkien did, in fact, influence each other: they and the other Inklings “read their manuscripts out loud to one another, encouraged and criticized one another, and revised their books based on the feedback they received”. The Company They Keep: C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien as Writers in Community. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 2007. xvi. I explore this point further in chapters 8 and 10

[3] See, for instance, Tolkien and the Study of His Sources: Critical Essays. Ed. Jason Fisher. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2011.

[4] Carpenter, The Inklings. 158.

[5] Tolkien, letter to Professor L.W. Forster, 31 December 1960. The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. Ed. Humphrey Carpenter. London: George Allen and Unwin, 1981. 303.

[6] Morris, The Roots of the Mountains, 335.

[7] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, 50th Anniversary One-Volume Edition. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2004. First published 1954-1955. 603.

[8] Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, 924.

[9] “Gill, n.” The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, Sixth Edition. Volume 1. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007. 1105.

[10] Fourteen times. The word does not appear at all in The House of the Wolfings.

[11] Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, 885

[12] Morris, The Roots of the Mountains, 338-339.

[13] Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, 627.

[14] Morris, The Roots of the Mountains, 345.

[15] Ibid, 386.

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