Review: Echoes of Eden

Echoes of EdenJerram Barrs. Echoes of Eden: Reflections on Christianity, Literature and the Arts. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013, 194 pp., £11.99/$17.99 paper.

Jerram Barrs has written an accessible and enjoyable introduction to some of the questions and issues that arise when Christians think carefully about the arts.  Echoes of Eden is a kind of road map for the contemporary evangelical (with a Reformed leaning) that includes both some conceptual signposts and five examples of how his views shape the way one reads a work of literature.

The first five chapters of Barrs’ book present the reader with a Christian framework for thinking about the arts.  These chapters clearly reveal the influence that C. S. Lewis has had on Barrs’ thinking about the arts.  He addresses a host of topics and questions, such as the relationship between God’s creativity and ours, appropriate subject matter for the arts, and criteria for making judgments about the arts.

In chapters 6 through 10, Barrs explores the work of five authors: C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkein, J. K. Rowling, William Shakespeare, and Jane Austen.  In this half of the book, Barrs appears to be more at home as a scholar and a writer. He considers each author’s work from the perspective of a Christian worldview, and a variety of other interesting issues arise (such as a defense of J. K. Rowlings use of magic in the Harry Potter series) in relation to each particular author.

The title of his book is taken from Barrs’ idea that in literature, and human culture more generally, there are “memories” of a pre-Fallen world, humanity’s original sin and God’s promise to restore this broken world.  These “echoes of Eden” are, says Barrs, accessible to peoples of all times and all places, and they are part of God’s revelation.  Barrs’ engagement with literature is rooted in this belief that God reveals true aspects of Himself and His world to us through literature.

Echoes of Eden is a good book.  Some will find this book to be thought provoking, exciting and even liberating.  It is informed by a robust Christian worldview.  However, several aspects of the book were disappointing.  I want to briefly mention three reasons why I hesitate to whole-heartedly recommend Echoes of Eden:

  1. It sometimes sacrifices thoughtful and careful discussion for simplicity.  I found this to be the case, for example, in his discussion of asceticism on page 17.  He defines asceticism as “the claim that taking pleasure in our creaturely life is somehow unspiritual or even sinful.”  There may be some who use the word “asceticism” in this manner, but Barrs’ discussion does an injustice to the long and rich tradition of Christian asceticism.  More examples could be mentioned.
  2. The “echoes of Eden” metaphor needs an eschatological dimension. His description of these “echoes” as cultural “memories” of what God has done does not leave enough room to talk about what God is doing.  Instead of a God who is actively revealing Himself today through cultural forms, the “echoes of Eden” metaphor seems to imply that we merely remember these “echoes” through the works of human culture.  A metaphor with more “eschatological room” would afford Barrs the opportunity to speak about how literature and other cultural forms are caught up in God’s redemptive action today.
  3. While Barrs’ vision of literature as God’s revelation may well be challenging to some, it is unfortunate that he does not extend this challenge further.  Instead of applying his Christian framework for the arts to “secular” literature or non-Western literature, Barrs interacts with relatively “safe” examples.  Is it even worth arguing that The Chronicles of Narnia contains “echoes of Eden”? It seems plausible that Barrs’ choice of examples is a reflection of the reader he has in mind.  However, this choice does not help him to support the larger claims he wants to make about “echoes of Eden” in literature.

As Barrs notes at the outset of his book, Christian thinking about the arts is often out of focus.  I am not convinced, however, that Echoes of Eden is the corrective lens that we need. Nevertheless, I recommend it to someone who is just beginning to explore relationships between art, literature and the Christian faith.  Barrs’ treatments of individual authors are surely the highlights, so if you enjoy Lewis, Tolkein, Rowling, Shakespeare or Austen you should consider buying this book.

Jim Watkins is a regular contributor to Transpositions. In 2012, he completed a PhD in theology through the Institute for Theology, Imagination and the Arts, and he currently teaches humanities and bible at Veritas School in Richmond, VA.  His  forthcoming book Creativity as Sacrifice: Toward a Theological Model for Human Creativity in the Arts will be published with Fortress Press.

 

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6 Comments

  • Travis Buchanan says:

    This is an excellent review Jim, thank you. I agree very much with your three disappointments. It would be good to emphasize Edenic echoes as well as eschatological anticipations, and to tackle more challenging or problematic authors. It would be interesting for Barrs to cut his teeth in a follow up book following some of your suggestions, and then considering someone like Cormac McCarthy, e.g., along with some more classic examples. Thanks for a very helpful review.

  • Travis Buchanan says:

    Or Ian McEwan.

    • Christopher R. Brewer says:

      Agreed. This is, as Jim knows, the substance of David Brown’s critique in “The Glory of God Revealed in Art and Music: Learning from Pagans,” in Celebrating Creation: Affirming Catholicism and the Revelation of God’s Glory, ed. Mark Chapman (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 43-56.) A classic essay that apparently still needs to be heard. Brown there argued:

      “A constant temptation among Christians when looking at art or music is to view their role, when legitimate, as at most illustrative, confirming or deepening faith but never challenging or subverting it. It is therefore hardly surprising that there is so much bad Christian art and music around, if even the more informed among us want to keep their influence in a safe pair of Christian hands, such as Rembrandt or Rouault in art, Bach or Bruckner in music. The more liberal minded, in spreading the net more widely, may believe themselves immune from such criticism, but often the same fault is still there: art seen as merely illustrative of what is already believed on other grounds…. But in the main I want through the use of specific examples to encourage readers to reflect for themselves. Jesus, if I am right, learnt from a pagan; might not we also?” (pp. 44-45)

      • Travis Buchanan says:

        Great quotation Chris, thanks for sharing. And that voice definitely needs to be heard again in theology and the arts. If Barrs would have followed Lewis more closely in this area, he would have had strong encouragement to do as Brown here suggests. Lewis’s own life was greatly shaped by ‘pagan’ influences, and his subsequent understanding of the true Christian ‘myth’ owed a great debt to pagan myths and stories. Thus Lewis speaks very positively about the contributions the pagan imagination can make to a Christian vision of the world. Caveat lector: I will include lots from him here, because I have it on hand, even at the risk of a comment longer than the post itself. If you only read Lewis’s first few quotations you’ll get the sense of it, though, without having to read the rest. So here is a sketch of how from Lewis’s writings themselves I would construct a case for a Christian believer to practice just what Brown is suggesting, learning from pagans.

        First, compare Lewis’s understanding of God as ‘the Father of Lights’ to what he says in the essay ‘Is Theology Poetry?’:

        Theology, while saying that a special illumination has been vouchsafed to Christians and (earlier) to Jews, also says that there is some divine illumination [end of p. 15] vouchsafed to all men. The Divine light, we are told, ‘lighteneth every man’. We should, therefore, expect to find in the imagination of great Pagan teachers and myth-makers some glimpse of that theme which we believe to be the very plot of the whole cosmic story—the theme of incarnation, death and rebirth. (1945c/2000a, 15-16)

        Similarly, in response to the question ‘Do you believe that the Holy Spirit can speak to the world through Christian writers today?’, Lewis said in an interview (‘Cross-Examination’):

        I prefer to make no judgement concerning a writer’s direct “illumination” by the Holy Spirit. I have no way of knowing whether what is written is from heaven or not. I do believe that God is the Father of lights—natural lights as well as spiritual lights (James 1:17). That is, God is not interested only in Christian writers as such. He is concerned with all kinds of writing. (1963/2000b, 147).

        In a footnote reflecting on the inspired nature of the biblical writings in relation to the more mythical elements reported in the Old Testament Scriptures in particular (he names the book of Jonah, as an example), in his book Miracles Lewis expresses his positive evaluation that ‘Myth in general is . . . at its best, a real though unfocussed gleam of divine truth falling on human imagination’ (Lewis 1947/60/96, 176n1).

        Also, consider Lewis’s understanding of Reason as light which helps one to discover truth, and his later statement that reason is the ‘organ of truth’ (from ‘Bluspels and Flanlanspheres’, 265):

        When I accept Theology I may find diffi­culties, at this point or that, in harmonising it with some particular truths which are imbedded in the mythical cosmology derived from science. But I can get in, or allow for, science as a whole. Granted that Reason is prior to matter and that the light of that primal Reason illuminates finite minds, I can understand how men should come, by observation and inference, to know a lot about [end of p. 20] the universe they live in. If, on the other hand, I swallow the scientific cosmology as a whole, then not only can I not fit in Christianity, but I cannot even fit in science. If minds are wholly dependent on brains, and brains on bio-chemistry, and bio-chemistry (in the long run) on the meaningless flux of the atoms, I cannot understand how the thought of those minds should have any more significance than the sound of the wind in the trees. (1945c/2000a, 20-21)

        Reflections on the Psalms (1958) has an extended discussion on ‘second meanings’ in literature with valuable reflections on how with ‘the help of Him who is the Father of lights’ the pagan imagination may alight upon (without even necessarily being fully aware of the fact) ‘true truth’ and paint pictures of it that Christians may look back on, and learn from, from their privileged perspective of being in Christ, in him who himself is the light of the world which shines in and overcomes the darkness, and who is the way, the truth, and the life (80ff., esp. 99-108). Certain genuine cases of literature which gives rise to true, congenial second meanings, like those in Plato and the mythmakers Lewis discussed, therefore may show

        a real connection between what Plato and the myth-makers most deeply were and meant and what I [with Christian faith] believe to be the truth. I know that connection and they do not. But it is really there. It is not an arbitrary fancy of my own thrust upon the old words. One can, without any absurdity, imagine Plato or the myth-makers if they learned the truth, saying, “I see . . . so that was what I was really talking about. Of course. That is what my words really meant, and I never knew it.” . . . Thus, long before we come to the Psalms or the Bible, there are good reasons for not throwing away all second meanings as rubbish. Keble said of the Pagan poets, “Thoughts beyond their thoughts to those high bards were given.” [Keble, The Christian Year (1827), ‘Third Sunday in Lent’, line 42] (108)

        Finally, we see this positive evaluation of human imagination, what Lewis considered ‘the organ of meaning’ (1939/69/79, 265), was a significant factor of his own adult conversion to Christianity, and present from his first publication after that event. Thus consider the very positive view of the pagan imagination groping toward, and partially apprehending, Christian truth in the first book Lewis wrote following his conversion to Christian theism, The Pilgrim’s Regress (1933). Near the end of the Lewis’s allegorical journey tale is recorded an exchange between the protagonist, the pilgrim John, and the character History. As the subtitle indicates, the book was written by the recently converted Lewis to provide a defense of Christianity, reason, and Romanticism, and it remains one of the most insightful of his works, even if its allegorical mode runs the risk of being obscure in places. (Lewis attempted to correct this fault in subsequent editions of the story by the addition of a running headline, interpreting for the reader the action and conversations on each page and placing them within their philosophical context.) In what follows (in Book 8, ch. 8), History is helping John to see that ‘There was a really Divine element in John’s Romanticism–For Morality is by no means God’s only witness in the sub-Christian world–Even Pagan mythology contained a Divine call–But the Jews, instead of a mythology, had the Law–Conscience and Sweet Desire must come together to make a Whole Man’ (191). Their conversation (explanatory brackets are mine):

        [John:] ‘Then it is really true that all men, all nations, have had this vision of an Island [John’s particular vision or picture which for him arouses ‘sweet desire’, an intense longing for joy]?’

        [History:] ‘It does not always come in the form of an Island: and to some men, if they inherit particular diseases, it may not come at all.’

        ‘But what is it, Father [History]? And has it anything to do with the Landlord [God the Father]? I do not know how to fit things together.’

        ‘It comes from the Landlord. We know this by its results. It has brought you to where you now are: and nothing leads back to him which did not at first proceed from him.’

        ‘But the Stewards [Protestant religious instructors from John’s youth, who are hypocrites and practical apostates] would say that it was the Rules [The Torah or Law of Moses] which come from him.’

        ‘Not all Stewards are equally travelled men. But those who are, know perfectly well that the Landlord has circulated other things besides the Rules. What use are Rules to people who cannot read?’

        ‘But nearly everyone can.’

        ‘No one is born able to read: so that the starting point for all of us must be a picture and not the Rules. And there are more than you suppose who are illiterate all their lives, [end of 192] or, who, at the best, never learn to read well.’

        ‘And for these people the pictures are the right thing?’

        ‘I would not quite say that. The pictures alone are dangerous, and the Rules alone are dangerous. That is why the best thing of all is to find Mother Kirk [the ‘catholic’ (universal) Church] at the very beginning, and to live from infancy with a third thing which is neither the Rules nor the pictures and which was brought into the country by the Landlord’s Son [Jesus Christ ]. . . . for as often as men become Pagans again, the Landlord again sends them pictures and stirs up sweet desire and so leads them back to Mother Kirk even as he led the actual Pagans long ago. There is, indeed, no other way.’

        ‘Pagans?’ said John. ‘I do not know that people.’

        ‘I forgot that you had travelled so little. It may well be that you were never in the country of Pagus in the flesh, though in another sense, you have lived there all your life. The curious thing about Pagus was that the people there had not heard of the Landlord.’ (192-93)

        [. . . .] [History:] ‘The Landlord succeeded in getting a lot of messages through.’

        [John:] ‘What sort of messages?’

        ‘Mostly pictures [stories, myths]. You see, the Pagans couldn’t read, because the Enemy [Satan] shut up the schools as soon as he took over Pagus. But they had pictures. The moment you mentioned your Island I knew what you were at. I have seen that Island dozens of times in those pictures.’

        ‘And what happened then?’

        ‘Almost certainly the same thing has happened to you. These pictures woke desire. You understand me?’

        ‘Very well.’

        ‘And then the Pagans made mistakes. They would keep on trying to get the same picture again: and if it didn’t come, they would make copies of it for themselves. Or even if it did come they would try to get out of it not desire but satisfaction. But you must know all this.’

        ‘Yes, yes, indeed. But what came of it?’

        ‘They went on making up more and more stories for themselves about the pictures, and then pretending the stories were true. They turned to brown girls and tried to believe that that was what they wanted. They went far South, some of them and became magicians, and tried to believe it was that. There was no absurdity and no in, decency they did not commit.’ (194)

        [. . . .] [History:] ‘Yes. But all the while there was one people that could read. You have heard of the Shepherd People [the Jews]? . . . . The Shepherds could read: that is the thing to remember about them. And because they could read, they had from the Landlord, not pictures but Rules.’

        ‘But who wants Rules instead of Islands?’

        ‘That is like asking who wants cooking instead of dinner. Do you not see that the Pagans, because they were under the enemy, were beginning at the wrong end They were like lazy schoolboys attempting eloquence before they learn grammar. They had pictures for their eyes instead of roads for their feet, and that is why most of them could do nothing but desire and then, through starved desire, become corrupt in their imaginations, and so awake and despair, and so desire again. Now the Shepherds, because they were under the Landlord, were made to begin at the right end. Their feet were set on a road . . . .’ (195)

        [John:] ‘Surely some of the Pagans did get somewhere.’

        [History:] ‘They did. They got to Mother Kirk. That is the definition of a Pagan—a man so travelling that if all goes well he arrives at Mother Kirk’s chair and is carried over this gorge. I saw it happen myself. But we define a thing by its perfection. The trouble about Pagus is that the perfect, and in that sense typical, Pagan, is so uncommon there. It must be so, must it not? These pictures—this ignorance of writing—this endless desire which so easily confuses itself with other desires and, at best, remains pure only by knowing what it does not want—you see that it is a starting point from which one road leads home and a thousand roads lead into the wilderness.’

        ‘But were the Shepherds not just as bad in their own way? Is it not true that they were illiberal, narrow, bigoted?’

        ‘They were narrow. The thing they had charge of was narrow: it was the Road [special revelation as contained in the Old Testament?]. They found it. They sign-posted it. They kept it clear and repaired it. But you must not think I am setting them up against the Pagans. The truth is that a Shepherd is only half a man, and a Pagan is only half a man, so that neither people was well without the other, nor could either be healed until the Landlord’s Son came into the country.’ (196)

  • Jim Watkins says:

    Travis, thank you for your comments. I think that you just set the record for longest Transpositions comment ever!

    Chris, thanks for making the connection to David’s essay.

    As is so often the case, the comments end up being more interesting than the post itself!

  • Travis Buchanan says:

    It was indulgent. Lewis is my vice.

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