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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.