Rants about the state of evangelical art are a dime a dozen—exceeded in number perhaps only by the kinds of art-as-tract material they critique. Sadly, many of those critiques are justified (even if the ranting tone may not be). Many evangelicals treat the arts not as genuine goods in and of themselves, but instead as only one more way to point people to the gospel. Art certainly does glorify God and may be an element of people’s journey to faith in Christ. Whether it is a book on Finding God in The Lord of the Rings or the kitschy “art” itself, we have a long ways to go. At the same time, critique can only take us so far. We need a clearly articulated, theologically robust aesthetic, and we need to work hard to put that aesthetic into practice.
Jerram Barrs’ Echoes of Eden aims to provide both that clear aesthetic and a pattern to follow. In the first half of the book, Barrs develops a theology of art; the second half looks at an array of literary works to see what that theology looks like in practice.
Echoes of Eden opens with a theology of creation and sub-creation. Barrs draws heavily on both the creation narrative in Genesis and the promise of eschatological restoration to argue that artistic activity as a subset of human vocation in general, is good in and of itself. Citing Tolkien, Barrs describes human artistry as “sub-creation” and argues that it is an essential aspect of the imago dei. Accordingly, he takes issue with any insistence either that art is a frivolity to be set aside or that it is valuable only if evangelistic. God’s creation was good, even before there were people to observe it. Indeed, there are beautiful things in this universe we have never seen and never will—sunsets on faraway planets and a thousand other splendors known only by their Creator—that have no apparent evangelistic purpose. Beauty is not an accident or a merely incidental element of our world. Rather, it is an attribute of the Triune Godhead, one so fundamental to the divine nature that it spills over in uncountable ways into the creation. People create because creating is a God-like thing to do, and we are God-like beings.
To buttress his argument, Barrs leans heavily on others who have written on the relationship of art and literature to Christianity, including John Calvin, C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, G. K. Chesterton, Francis Schaeffer, and Dorothy Sayers. He rarely makes it more than a page or two in the first half of the book without citing one or another of these theological and literary greats. He draws on Lewis in particular, especially his article “Christianity and Literature”1 and his book An Experiment in Criticism. For Barrs, like his heroes, art is a necessary way of getting beyond ourselves and seeing the world as God has made it. It ought not be the mere reinforcement of what we already know, but something that challenges us and makes us grow in both understanding of and wonder at the world and people and God.
Barrs is not content merely to describe art, though. He also carefully considers artists. He argues strongly that we should see not treat artists as prophets speaking from some place of elevated insight simply by dint of their being artists. Rather, we should value them as craftsmen and craftswomen doing their work well—just as with any other vocation. To some, this might seem a demotion, but Barrs is intent to elevate all those other vocations along the way:
Sometimes Christians will insist that the only work that is truly worthwhile, pleasing to God, and spiritual is the work of serving the proclamation of the gospel across the world. This view suggests that if we were all truly earnest Christians, we would leave our ‘secular” jobs, in which we are simply making a living, providing for our families, and ruling the world, and we would all join the “sacred” work of mission. But if we stop and think about Jesus’s life, we see that he was doing so-called secular work as a carpenter or a fisherman for many more years than he was a preacher and teacher. It would be blasphemous to suppose that during these years Jesus was living in a manner that was not fully godly and completely pleasing to his Father in heaven. (21)
Accordingly, the vocation of the artist is not the calling of the visionary, but of the ordinary person diligently carrying out an ordinary calling. The Christian artist is like a Christian doctor or a Christian painter: the fact that he is a Christian primarily informs the care taken in doing the work, rather than the content of that work. A Christian’s art need not be focused only on explicitly Christian topics any more than a Christian lawyer need take only cases for other Christians. Following Lewis, Barrs gives particularly short shrift to the idea that there are a great many topics unsuitable for the Christian artist: many things we shy away from, Scripture itself addresses clearly and boldly. The issue is how we address ethically challenging things, rather than whether we may address them. Indeed, we not only may, but should.
In the last two purely expository chapters, Barrs asks how Christians ought to evaluate the arts (closely following Schaeffer’s articulation in Art and Bible) and then articulates his own specific take on the purpose of the arts: that they are meant to be “echoes of Eden”. Whether created by Christians or non-Christians, the best pieces of art all reflect the world as it was in Eden, as it is in its fallen state, and as it someday will be after eschatological restoration.2 Different pieces of art will weight those elements differently, but the best will all have some of each. Noting the varied ways in which the authors of Scripture used the cultural resources around them, Barrs argues for Christians to receive the art of non-Christians gratefully, taking joy in finding those echoes wherever they may be found. For the final five chapters of the book, he (partly) takes his own advice, looking for these “echoes of Eden” in the life of C. S. Lewis and the literature of J. R. R. Tolkien, J. K. Rowling, William Shakespeare, and Jane Austen. (Curiously, he sticks to authors who were Christians.3 More on that in a moment.)
In short, Echoes of Eden says all the right things. Barrs has provided a healthy, sound theology of the arts, reiterating and synthesizing the helpful work of Schaeffer, Lewis, Tolkien, Sayers, and Dostoevsky. What is more, his survey of English literature grounds that theology in concrete examples we can follow. This is a solid book.
There was one thing it lacked, though: beauty of its own. As Barrs himself says, “A book that is not well-written, no matter how compelling the story is, will not be reread multiple times” (114). I doubt I will read Echoes of Eden again, because this is true for non-fiction as well. Form matters. It may not be quite true that the way we say things is just as important as what we say—better to say the truth boringly than a lie splendidly—but it comes a close second. The truth is beautiful, and we should always aim to present it beautifully. Unfortunately, Echoes of Eden suffers from the quality of Barrs’ prose and some failures of form.
Barrs prose is not bad; it is merely unexceptional. His sentences tend to meander, and he qualifies far too many ideas with “I suggest” and “I am not saying… I am saying” rather than simply stating his argument. He also sometimes introduces ideas and then fails to elaborate on them. One particularly grating example: he discusses abstract art in a single paragraph, less than half a page, at the end of his chapter on the artist’s calling (51–52). It would have fit better in the following chapter, on judging the arts, and certainly deserves more than a hundred words given the predominance of abstraction in late modern art. Barring that, it would have been better simply to leave the topic aside entirely (and likewise with a number of other too-brief treatments throughout the book). Similarly, the book itself simply ends more than it concludes. Barrs comes to the end of his chapter on Jane Austen and leaves it at that (save for a single-page appendix on a detail in Harry Potter). A brief chapter summarizing the book’s argument would have done much to tie together his literary exploration of “echoes of Eden.”
Finally, and perhaps most significantly, the overall structure of the book fails to live up to Barrs’ own arguments. In the climax of his expository section, Barrs argues at some length that Christians should enjoy “echoes of Eden” wherever we find them. It seems odd, then, that not one of his five chapters on literature examined art by non-Christians. Substituting Mark Twain or Cormac McCarthy for one or two of the authors Barrs chose would have made his point much more strongly (and been less repetitive and more interesting, too).
That does not mean this is a bad book, only that there is an unfortunate disconnect between Barrs’ argument and the form it takes. The most compelling presentations of the truth—and the only presentations that will endure—are those that convey both the substance and the beauty of right ideas. Lies so often come in beautiful attire; our defense of the good and beautiful must be attractively done in turn. But most of all, as Barrs himself so clearly says, beauty itself is a good thing. Beautiful presentations of the truth are important finally not because of the effects they achieve (however good those may be), but because they honor God simply by being both beautiful and true. This is hard work, true, but it is possible. Barrs’ himself gets there from time to time (see the selection on vocation quoted above). Other academic writers like Alan Jacobs consistently pull it off. And of course, Barrs’ own heroes Tolkien and Lewis did it in nearly everything they wrote. May we all strive harder not only to say the truth, but to say it well.
- C. S. Lewis, “Christianity and Literature”, Genesis: Journal of the Society of Christians in the Arts, Inc. 1, no. 2 (1975): 18–20. ↩
- I suspect that Thomas Kinkade’s paintings have had the appeal they do because they step—albeit in a kitschy and ultimately unsatisfactory fashion—toward the first and last of Barrs’ echoes (p. 26). As for why they are kitschy rather than splendid, it is because they mistake a lack of shadows for Edenic or heavenly beauty—but God made light and darkness on the first day; what would the night sky be without the space between the stars? ↩
- By which I do not mean “people published by Christians presses and sold to Christians via Christian bookstores.” Barrs strongly asserts Shakespeare’s Christianity, a point he acknowledges is contested in the academy. I am too ignorant of the issue to comment. ↩