Sean McDowell | March 17, 2018

Toy Story, Imagination, and Apologetics

Along with my regular posts at, I am now featuring some of my former students in the Biola Apologetics Program. This post is by my friend Adam Kingston, who helped me with both the Apologetics Study Bible for Students and the updated and revised Evidence that Demands a Verdict. You can follow him on Twitter at @AdamGunnar.

Toy Story, Imagination, and Apologetics

by Adam Kingston

When Pixar set out to create their first film, a life-size animated world of children’s toys in 1995, they took an interesting approach. President of Pixar Ed Catmull explains,

One of the defining creative principles of Pixar is this principle: “Story is King,”... we would let nothing—not the technology, not the merchandising possibilities—get in the way of our story. We took pride in the fact that reviewers talked mainly about the way Toy Story made them feel and not about the computer wizardry that enables us to get it up on the screen. We believed that this was the direct result of our always keeping story as our guiding light.” (Creativity, Inc., p. 66.)

More than high-tech graphics or sophisticated marketing, Pixar was focused on story: how it made the viewer feel, more than, what the viewer saw. Impressively, Toy Story would go on to generate $365 million dollars and become one of the most profitable films of that decade.

Why is this so significant? Because sharing stories unlocks people’s imaginative potential. They discover characters, locations, and smells which resonate in their own life. They remember long-passed trips, forgotten friends, and deeply-felt emotions. They develop likes or dislikes in certain aspects of the story and sub-consciously began applying their own experiences onto the individuals and places within the story. In short, story brings about an active role within the listener; it gives them permission to take an adventure.

C. S. Lewis expands on this:

“The more imagination a reader has… the more he will do for himself. He will, at a mere hint from the author, flood wretched material with suggestion and never guess that he is himself chiefly making what he enjoys.” (On Stories: And Other Essays on Literature, 38).

How does story then affect the world of apologetics? Massively. Most people (and especially Millennials) are not interested in truth, morality, rules, disagreements or anything else precursed by the word objective, which can seem elitist and narrow-minded.

Do apologists then roll over and submit their message of Jesus to the age of relativism? Of course not! Rather, they engage as Jesus did—through story.

Consider the careful distinction Oxford Professor Alister McGrath makes between argument and imagination:

“Argument will always have its place in Christian apologetics. But it urgently needs to be supplemented by an appeal to imagery. Arguments are precise; images are suggestive. We need to meditate on those remarkable words of some Greeks who came to Philip: ‘Sir, we wish to see Jesus’ (John 12:21). Here is our task: to help people see Jesus Christ with their own eyes. Let us learn from Christ, who opened his parables, not with a definition (“The kingdom of God is…), but with an image (“The kingdom of God is like…). The parables themselves are remarkably effective in inviting their hearers to step inside their narrative worlds and in stirring the imagination. The parables excite; too often, arguments dull.” (Intellectuals Don’t Need God & Other Modern Myths, 194.)

Given the cognitive demands of the subjects, there seems little doubt as to the need of story within the discipline. Apologetics needs more imagery, more adventure, and more excitement.

As Ravi Zacharias often states, the apologist is always to prioritize the questioner over the question. We are not merely after intellectual answers, but rather warm and compelling presentations of the Gospel. The apologist’s aim is to capture the attention and heart of the individual, lead them to the place of seeing Jesus in His wonder and glory, and then to wrestle with what it means to respond.

The Kingdom of God is like… what?

Sean McDowell, Ph.D. is a professor of Christian Apologetics at Biola University, the National Spokesman for Summit Ministries, a best-selling author, popular speaker, and part-time high school teacher. Follow him on Twitter: @sean_mcdowell and his blog: