Through being involved in Bible Colleges for a number of years, I have come across a wide range of attitudes towards the Christian’s involvement with culture and the arts. Allow me to overstate my point a little with some harmless stereotyping. Some students will arrive with hard drives stuffed full of movies and music to ‘share’. Some have no issues with Christians indiscriminately enjoying all the hottest movies and music. Others were raised to reject virtually all culture and arts (even the Narnia series) as sinful, and are unsurprisingly confused with these other Christians. And then there are those who haven’t really thought about the issue at all. They’re often swayed one way or the other almost entirely due to whom they have last spoken with. So what do we do with this situation?
Questions like this expose the need for Christians to biblically think through their own attitude and stance towards the arts. Who would prove an able guide in such matters? Thankfully, Jerram Barrs is no foreigner to the questions of Chrsitianity and culture, through having spent 18 years with L’Abri and now being in his role as Professor of Christian Studies and Contemporary Culture at Covenant Theological Seminary. In his book, Echoes of Eden, Barrs attempts to help the thoughtful Christian work through the question, “how are Christians to think about the arts?” (KL90).
Echoes of Eden
For Barrs, all proper thinking about the arts needs to begin with God and the doctrine of Creation. God is the creator and mankind is His vice-regent, with delegated authority to rule and subdue creation. Adam’s role included cultivating and expanding the garden. Adam was not a creator, but was able to sub-create with the matter and tools that God provided him. This foundation surely affects the self-understanding of the artist, “We may describe a Christian understanding of the arts in the following way: Our work in any field of the arts will be imitative” (KL286). All artistic endeavour is not self-originating, but instead owes its existence to our Creator and therefore should humbly submit to His governance, bucking any modern dogma of true art needing to be ‘innovative’, ‘unique’, and ‘creative’ in the process.
Barrs then explores the question of how Christians should rightly judge the arts. This topic is quite broad, but Barrs weaves through the various questions with care and brevity. Barrs begins with more obvious objective standards such as how certain foods will offend all taste buds, but also the subjective element to this, that not all people will like all foods. Then he moves onto deeper issues such as the artist’s motive for creating the piece, the integrity of the artist and their piece, and the presence or absence of morality. This section is very helpful and avoids oversimplifications.
A significant part of Barrs’ presentation is his concept of echoes of eden. In Barr’s view, all great art will reflect reality: paradise lost, our current experience, and our need for redemption. All the best art will be relatable, and art that rejects or distorts these notions is not true to reality and therefore deficient.
The second half of the book consists of five chapters exploring different authors and the echoes of Eden in their lives and writings. These topics are C.S. Lewis and his conversion, Tolkien and Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter and the theme of self-sacrificing love, the Christian worldview found in Shakespeare’s plays and finally Jane Austen’s writings, particularly Pride and Prejudice. Each chapter is much of a self-contained essay exemplifying the foundations provided in the earlier chapters of this book.
Barr clearly loves the arts and his love is contagious in Echoes of Eden. The best writers show rather than tell; they don’t tell you what to feel, they stir up the desired feelings in their readers through their skilled prose. Jerram exemplifies this ideal by filling his book with personal anecdotes and fantastic quotes that leave the reader wanting to experience and delight in the arts the way Jerram does. His childlike (eden-like?) wonder is evident in his writing.
Barr’s tone throughout is pastoral and graceful. He is aware that this can be a touchy subject so he carefully leads the reader to the conclusions he believes are most biblical. There is a confident humility in Jerram’s work; he has much to say and isn’t afraid of speaking to the most pressing and often controversial questions that Christians ask regarding the arts, however, he does so with a gentle persuasiveness.
I would have benefited from more contemplation on the level of unrighteous content Christians ought to experience in art. While Barrs does address this issue in a few places, unresolved questions still lingered for me. Barrs helpfully corrected the over-simplistic notion of judging art purely on something like a ‘cuss count’; the underlying message and motive behind the art is often a more pervasive and dangerous issue. However, can we not fall into an opposite ditch where any depraved content can be excused due to an underlying ‘positive’ or ‘true’ message? And is the question of unrighteous content merely subjective, or are there objective lines Christians ought not to cross (Eph 5:3-5)?
For example, Barrs rejects pornography for having purely unrighteous motives and inspiration absent of any artistic value, but even this is not objective since advocates of pornography will disagree on either point. Also, is the problem with pornography merely the intention and motive of the creators, or is it found in the content also? And if the content is an issue, then how do we account for a sometimes similar degree of unrighteous content in movies wholeheartedly accepted by Christians. These movies may have been created with ‘better’ motives perhaps, but often have virtually the same degree of offensive content. Beyond the important factor of one wisely avoiding content that can be a subjective temptation, is there also an objective common ground that dictates what all Christians ought not touch? And if there is, where is it clearly articulated? Is there a place for one to exhort or even rebuke their Christian brother or sister based on the content they readily partake in? These questions raise an issue I did not feel was satisfactorily addressed in Echoes of Eden.
On a related note, a section devoted to the role of parents in protecting and leading their children in cultural engagement would have also been welcome. Perhaps I am asking for too much since both of these above points could require a book-length treatment. However they are both valid and relevant issues that naturally arise while reading this book and, while touched on to some degree, I wish they received more substantial attention.
It was quite odd that in the second section Barrs only chose to discuss writers. Considering this is a book on the arts and all kinds of art have been extolled so far, this section could have benefited from a wider approach. Barrs could have chosen a musician, whether classical or contemporary, or a painter, or a movie director. With the quality of Barrs insights in this second section, hearing what he had to say about some other art forms would have been very welcome.
Barrs has assigned himself a difficult task here, but he has pulled it off very well. There is a delightful balance here of theological analysis and childlike joy in the arts. Barrs rightly grounds everything in Scripture and covers an amazing scope of issues related to this topic while still creating a work that flows well and is very enjoyable to read. As mentioned above, I would have enjoyed a little more on how the content of what we take in, but overall this is a fantastic work. I would not want my praise to be overshadowed by this criticism.
I would highly recommend this book to any Christian interested in the arts or how to think about the arts. Particularly this would include pastors seeking wisdom, artists seeking a foundation, and parents wanting to properly decide what should enter their household. More broadly, I cannot think of anyone, Christian or otherwise, who would not benefit from Echoes of Eden. May we all, like Barrs, take delight God’s good gifts in creation!
(KL = Kindle Location)
[Many thanks to Crossway and Netgalley for providing a review copy of this book]