In Houston, a city prepping against any Ebola threat and making news for a battle between the mayor and the evangelical community over LGBT rights, is a former atheist English professor who now defends the Christian faith.
She says this stew of fear, hate, intolerance, and political unrest is a garden spot for finding faith.
“Houston is a great place to have an Apologetics program [Apologetics is the defense of the Christian faith] because having all this diversity – all these issues – means people are thinking and talking about their faith,” says Holly Ordway, who has a PhD in English and master's degree in Apologetics from Houston Baptist University, in a phone interview.
Ordway adds, “Whether it’s talk about life and death with Ebola, or what people believe and think about homosexuality, they learn that what they believe matters.” Houston is a prime location in America “to learn to hate the sin, but love the sinner,” she says.
Once an atheist English professor at a secular college in California, Ordway admits that she once believed that Christians were a collection of “ignorant, plastic Jesus stereotypes” and “atheists were smarter than Christians.”
Ordway attributes the bulk of her previous prejudice against Christians as coming from her years studying in South Carolina where “every believer I met was in my face asking ‘Have you been saved?' ”
For an academic raised in the northeast, she said, “That whole question ‘Have you been saved’ felt unsophisticated, meaningless and I had this counter-reaction to belief.”
“It really was an inexcusable ignorance on my part,” Ordway says. “I bought into the whole ‘we’re more enlightened folks who’ve ‘arrived’ because we don’t believe in God – bad attitude that is often prevalent in colleges.”
She says that she experienced a fair amount of flack from critics after her Christian baptism in 2006 (in 2012 she became a Catholic), but not as much as she’d expected.
“I think a lot of atheists perceive it as teams and feel I’m a traitor for switching teams,” she explains. “Others claim I was not a proper atheist to begin with if I could become a believer.”
Her journey from being an atheist to devout Christian professor at Houston Baptist University is detailed in her second book, “Not God's Type: An Atheist Academic Lays Down Her Arms” (Ignatius Press), which was released Oct. 7.
This is a revised version of her earlier work titled "Not God’s Type: A Rational Academic Finds a Radical Faith" (Moody, 2010).
Ordway says she was never like the smug, nasty atheist character Prof. Jeffrey Radisson, played by actor Kevin Sorbo in the popular film “God’s Not Dead” (March 2014).
“I think Christians in America really buy into the myth of the oppressive atheist,” Ordway says. “I haven’t watched ‘God’s Not Dead’ because I kinda don’t want to raise my blood pressure to the bursting point by seeing that kind of academic approach. I would never force students to alter their beliefs when I was an atheist, or now.”
In the film, the professor, who's viciously angry with God, uses his bully pulpit to require that each student sign a “God is dead” statement or convince him that God’s not dead. The only other option is to receive an F in the course.
The character in the film makes a deathbed conversion after one of his students makes a convincing series of arguments.
In real life, Ordway says she was led to find faith through good literature penned by believers such as J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. “My interest was awakened by C.S. Lewis’s book ‘Mere Christianity,' ” Ordway says. “He gave beauty and meaning that gave me the sense that I wanted to learn more.”
Today she is among the tolerant believers in a city of political, social, and spiritual unrest.
“Academia and belief don’t have to be compartmentalized,” Ordway concludes. “We can interact with people who oppose our views.”
[Editor's note: The original article incorrectly stated when Ordway became Catholic.]