Jerram Barrs is the founder and resident scholar of the Francis Schaeffer Institute at Covenant Theological Seminary. There he teaches apologetics and outreach as professor of Christian studies. Here, he is writing about the arts, and specifically literature. In doing so, he provides an excellent apologetic for both its value as the creation of God’s image bearers, as well as its place as a connection point in doing apologetics.
The book is informally split into two parts. The first five chapters lay a rich foundation for a “Edenic” perspective on man’s artistic endeavors. Chapter 1 explains how man, being made in the image of God, is a creative being. We function in this world as kind of “sub-creators.” Chapter 2 then explains how this makes us function as imitators of God whether we like it or not. As Barrs sees it, and this is part of where the title of the books comes from:
All great art will echo these three elements of Eden: (1) Eden in its original glory, (2) Eden that is lost to us, and (3) the promise that Eden will be restored. We will look later in some depth at this call of the artist to make “echoes of Eden.” (26)
Barrs builds on this relying heavily (and rightly so I think) on Calvin, as well as Lewis. Chapter 3 then explains how we can begin building a Christian understanding of the artist’s calling. In his vision for Christian artists, Barrs says:
At the most basic level, when it comes to the arts, we must hold Christians to the same standards of judgment as we would any other artist— just as we hold Christians in medicine, or teaching, or business, or any other calling to an objective set of standards. I would not want to take my child, ill with leukemia, to a doctor just because he claimed to be a Christian. I would try to find out whether he was a well-trained and competent physician. The same should be true if I am looking for an architect, an interior designer, music to play or listen to, a novel to read, a play to see, a movie to watch, or an artist or artistic work in any field of the arts. I will be looking first for quality rather than for the claim of faith.
This means, then, that we might do well to speak of Christian artists, or of Christians who are called to be artists, in the same way that we speak of Christians who are doctors, lawyers, teachers, homemakers, or cooks, rather than speaking of Christian medicine, Christian cooking, and so on. Then, once we learn to speak this way, our challenge to all believers will be to pursue their callings with heart, soul, mind, and strength to the glory of God so that the dedication of their lives and the quality of their work brings honor to their Maker. (42)
He follows this by offering a Christian view of what kind of “topics” an artist can pursue:
We may put it bluntly: there are no secular topics. All creation is God’s and therefore is proper material for artistic expression. But, you may respond, “There is much that is bad about this world and that therefore does not reveal the perfectly holy character of God.” This is of course true, and so we may add that the world and human life in all its fallenness and brokenness is appropriate subject matter for the Christian artist, just as it is appropriate subject matter for the Word of God. We may add further that the hope for redemption from this state of brokenness is also fit material for the artist. (43)
And he then continues:
In fact, we may propose as a principle that the themes of all great art— whether produced by Christians or non-Christians— are the world and human life as they came from the hand of God; the world and human life as they now are subject to sorrow, sin, and death; and the world and human life as we long for and look forward to their restoration. Which theme predominates will vary from piece to piece in the work of any particular artist, and will vary from artist to artist depending on his or her belief system and experience of life. I refer to this reality as “echoes of Eden”: echoes of creation, fall, and redemption in the arts. (43, emphasis mine)
With this framework in place, chapter 4 turns to how we can judge the arts. Barrs gives a list of what he thinks should be the “beginnings” or appropriate criteria:
- We need to ask whether giftedness from God is evident in the work of a particular composer or performer of music, poet or novelist, painter, sculptor, or filmmaker. (54)
- We should look for the dedicated development of the artist’s gift through humble learning from others, through practice, and through faithful application— in other words, through hard work as the artist lives as a good steward of the gift God has given. (55)
- We should find a commitment by artists to use their gifts for others as well as for their own fulfillment. For the Christian who is an artist, the most significant other to serve will be the Lord. (56)
- There will be humble submission to the rules of one’s discipline, respect for its traditions, and a readiness to find freedom of expression within these forms and within the forms of God’s created order. (57)
- We must ask ourselves, is this work of art true? (57)
- We need to bring any work of art before the bar of moral criteria. (59)
- We must ask questions about appropriate continuity between the form and the content of a given work of art. (61)
- In art as in any other area of human endeavor, we need to look for technical excellence. (61)
- We should have a concern for how well a work of art reflects the integrity of the artist. (62)
- We should expect to see integrity in the work itself. (63)
- We should be aware that simple entertainment is fine in almost all the art forms, for God has indeed created us to enjoy his gifts and to enjoy one another’s gifts. (63)
After giving us the start on artistic criteria, Barrs rounds out part 1 with a final chapter discussing the main avenues of God’s general revelation. In doing so, he gives more detail to how he understands the “echoes of Eden” to work. The avenues, since you are curious, are:
- Human persons
- God’s Providential care
- God’s Rule over the history of the nations
- The echoes of Eden
Regarding this last avenue, Barrs says,
All over the world there is a sense that our present life in this world is one of having lost our way from our original dwelling place, a place that was better and more beautiful than the place in which people now live.
All over the world there is the knowledge that our present condition is one of alienation and rebellion, that we are not all we should be, that there is brokenness and tragedy in all of human life.
All over the world there is a longing for this brokenness to be set right, and there is the hope for a redeemer. Some of these elements of the biblical story are present in almost every nation’s story about the past. Some contain very particular parts of the biblical account of our origins, like the almost universal existence of flood legends.
In addition there is the widespread presence of sacrifice as a means of atonement. Consider this example reported by a friend of mine who was an intermediate technology missionary in a remote part of Nepal. During his first years there he was astonished when the village celebrated its fall festival of atonement. The people took a young goat, a kid, tore it to pieces, and consumed it till none of its flesh was left. They did this to take away the sins of the community. (75)
Barrs sees these echoes primarily deposited in literature, which is then the focus of the second half of the book. However, before he goes there, he offers this encouragement:
Christians today need to be prepared to utilize these echoes of Eden wherever they are found, just as did the apostles Paul and John and the Old Testament prophets. The biblical authors used these echoes because pagan religions did indeed contain memories of the true story of our fall into sin and sorrow, our present plight under the powers of darkness, and the hope for a redeemer. (84)
For the final five chapters, Barrs applies this foundation to the C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings, the works of Shakespeare, Harry Potter, and Jane Austen. Along the way he shows readers how to read literature well, as well as how to see the echoes of Eden. It helps that the authors he chose intentionally wove them into their writings, but Barrs method would work well with any well written literature, partly because he claims (rightly so) that great literature depends on utilizing these echoes of Eden so it will resonate with humanity.
Overall, I found this an outstanding book and would consider it a must read for anyone who takes the arts in general seriously, and literature in particular. It would be interesting to take Barrs’ ideas about the “echoes of Eden” and apply it elsewhere within pop culture, and maybe that’s just something I might pursue later. In the meantime, I would highly recommend reading Barrs work. It is clear and accessible, steeped in good ole’ Reformed theology of creation (specifically Calvin’s) and is conversant with other thinkers who thought well of culture. Also, his take on Harry Potter is worth the price of the book if you’ve enjoyed the series but taken flak from other Christians who still think it is somehow demonic. Don’t but the book just for that, but consider it an added bonus to a work that is a theologically rich exegesis of culture in light of God’s revelation within it.
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