Jerram Barrs, Echoes of Eden: Reflections on Christianity, Literature, and the Arts, (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013), 208 pages.
I would like to thank Crossway for providing me a review copy.
As a former student of Professor Barrs who learned much from him, I was eager to get this book. It was a good read, and I recommend it as a good reflection on a Christian approach to the arts.
The first five chapters reflect on a Christian approach to the arts. I appreciated the fact that professor Barrs wrote both to consumers and producers of art. That is, he discusses how Christians ought to appreciate and evaluate art and how Christian artists ought to go about their craft. This is a definite strength of the book. In these chapters Barrs insists that the artist’s calling is to be an imitator of God. Novelty for novelty’s sake is ungodly and produces ugly art. Rather, a Christian artist will seek to reflect the natural beauty of God’s creation and to work within the established conventions of his or her field. A good artist is not a revolutionary. This is not to say that all art must rigidly conform to previous expectations and that there can be no new developments of form or style. Rather, it is to say that good artists respect the tradition, learn from it, and diverge from it only cautiously and humbly.
Barrs takes issue with the Romantic notion of the artist as the “great revealer” who sees reality more clearly than others. This, he says, is arrogant and inappropriate, as is the other Romantic notion that art is about “self-expression.” He writes that “Christian artists need to regard themselves as creatures of God, using gifts given by God, delighting in the world made by God, needing the help of other artists, doing their work to the glory of God, and devoting their labors to the enrichment of the lives of others” (28).
Barrs is adamant that Christian can appreciate art produced by non-Christians. He notes that all Christians appreciate and use the work of unbelievers when they drive a car, cross a bridge, eat at a restaurant, and do many other such things. In addition, Christians often evaluate the aesthetics of such things as buildings, bridges, cars, and food, without questioning whether these things were made by Christians. Thus, Barrs claims that Christians can likewise enjoy art created by non-Christians just as much as art created by Christians (and sometimes more so!). To that end he also includes eleven criteria for evaluating good art, whether explicitly Christian or not.
Finally, in this section, Barrs briefly discusses his thesis that good art contains “echoes of Eden” or “echoes of the truth of the human condition.” He suggests that “all great art contains elements of the true story: the story of the good creation, the fallen world, and the longing for redemption” (67). He argues based on Psalm 19, Romans 1, Act 17 and other passages that all humans retain memories, however faint or distorted, of our original created goodness, our fall from grace, our suffering and longing for redemption, and the hope for a brighter future.
The last half of the book contains five chapters on writers whose works embody these echoes of Eden. Barrs discusses briefly many of the works of these authors but chooses one work for a more substantial treatment. They are: C.S. Lewis and The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, J.R.R. Tolkien and The Lord of the Rings, J.K. Rowling and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, William Shakespeare and Macbeth, and Jane Austin and Pride and Prejudice.
Professor Barrs is deeply passionate about the arts, deeply passionate about the true story of God’s good creation gone awry and redeemed by Jesus, and deeply passionate about connecting with unbelievers and affirming that God still uses them to produce good things that can be appreciated and acknowledged (the doctrine of total depravity, to which Professor Barrs adheres, does not require that one believe all acts done or goods produced are wholly evil without a shadow of good in them). His enthusiasm for all these things comes across clearly in this book, especially when he talks about his enjoyment and experience of good art. These are all good points that need to be said and read. In his passion, though, Professor Barrs often addresses the extremist fringe—people who believe that all fantasy literature is demonic, for instance. People who hold to these beliefs will neither buy this book nor, if they do buy it, be convinced by its arguments. Barrs would have been better served by addressing those with more nuanced and less radical concerns and views.
This was especially illustrated to me in his discussion of J.K. Rowling, whom some Christians have claimed is a witch who is trying to seduce people into the occult through the Harry Potter books. Barrs strives mightily to convince his readers that fantasy is not inherently evil, that magic is not necessarily demonic, and that C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and J.K. Rowling are doing essentially the same thing in their works. On the first two points, I whole-heartedly agree. I am less supportive of his third point in which he argues that if you think Lewis and Tolkien are within the pale, you should have no problems with Rowling either. He notes that Rowling attends a church, claims to be a Christian, included Scripture passages in her final book, and wrote a story full of echoes of the story of Jesus. However, because his interlocutors are crazed fanatics, he doesn’t address more substantive critiques of Rowling’s work.
Allow me to elaborate, but before I do I should note that 1) I have read all of the Harry Potter books and thoroughly enjoyed them, 2) I think Christians should feel full liberty to read and enjoy them as well, 3) I intend to encourage my children to read them when I deem them mature enough. That being said, I think Barrs’ unqualified comparisons between Lewis, Tolkien, and Rowling are misguided. Two differences between the first two and the latter suggest to me that Christians ought to approach the Harry Potter series with more caution and critical reflection than is necessary for the works of Lewis and Tolkien.
First, unlike Lewis and Tolkien who set the magic of their books in the context of different realities, Rowling sets her magic in the context of our real world and explicitly ties it to historic pagan religions such as druidism. That is, within the logic of the books themselves, the magic practiced by Harry and co. is equated with magic practiced by real pagans in our world. This is a profound difference and one that Christian parents should consider carefully when deciding at what age to encourage their children to read Harry Potter.
Second, there is a decided preference for utilitarian ethics in the Harry Potter series. Harry, Ron, and Hermione, regularly break the rules and avoid serious punishment because in the end they saved the day. For instance, in the first book, although they lose points for Gryffindor for violating the rules, Dumbledore grants them enough points to win the house cup for actions taken while breaking the rules. This happens regularly throughout the series. The ends justify the illegal or rebellious means. In the context of the whole series, it could be argued that Dumbledore’s habit of rewarding Harry, Ron, and Hermione despite their violations of the rules is not considered morally commendable. After all, by the end, Dumbledore is revealed to be morally flawed in his own judgments as well. However, it is debatable whether this particular habit of his is ever critiqued. Either way this requires a depth of reflection most young children are incapable of.
Neither of these two objections are mentioned or discussed by Professor Barrs, which is unfortunate, since his discussion would have been more nuanced and well received had he addressed these concerns.
The final half of the book was thoroughly enjoyable (my frustrations with Barrs’ discussion of Harry Potter notwithstanding), and made me want to go read again all of the works addressed. Barrs discusses each author’s life and circumstance, showing how that influenced their writing. He discusses the themes and echoes of Eden in their own lives and in their works. This section of the book overflows with Barrs’ enthusiasm for great literature. However, there was a missed opportunity here: none of the authors discussed were non-Christians. Including at least one chapter discussing the work of a non-Christian would have gone a long way to substantiating the thesis of the first half of the book and would have modeled for the readers how to approach literature that wasn’t written by someone who was self-consciously Christian. A chapter on the Hunger Games series, or some other recent, popular fiction would have contributed substantially to this book. We can only hope that a second edition will include a few more chapters to address this lack.
On the whole, this is a fine book. The chapters are brief, making this an excellent book to use for a book discussion group. The second half of the book will be more valuable if the reader is already familiar with the works discussed. However, Barrs writes clearly and summarizes well, so prior knowledge isn’t necessary to still benefit from these chapters. I would recommend this book to college students, especially those in the arts, pastors, and any Christian interested in reflecting on a Christian approach to the arts. Few people are better qualified to write this book than Jerram Barrs, who himself was raised as an atheist, heard the echoes of Eden around him, and responded by seeking and finding the truth that was adumbrated in the beauty of creation and the arts.
I am sure Rowling is not trying to seduce little children to druidism. Rather, I expect she saw this as fairly innocuous, especially in light of her own Archbishop (Rowan Williams) being inducted into a druidic society.