One of the books I have especially looked forward to reading this summer is Echoes of Eden: Reflections on Christianity, Literature, and the Arts by Jerram Barrs (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013). As a teacher of Fine Arts, I was intrigued by the title and curious as to how Barrs would navigate a subject to which Christians hold quite different and quite passionate views. Jerram Barrs is the founder and resident scholar of the Francis Schaeffer Institute at Covenant Theological Seminary. I had heard good things about his book, so my expectations were high. Last week my copy finally arrived and I was not disappointed.
Echoes of Eden is an enlightening book, both for artists who write books, poetry, plays and film scripts, as well as those who enjoy participating in the arts—reading books and poety, and watching movies and plays. In this book Barrs provides a helpful apologetic for creativity and imagination. How are we to think about the arts as Christians? How can we appreciate creativity and imagination? How can we participate in the arts from a Christian worldview?
In the first five chapters Barrs explains how we are to understand and evaluate literature and the arts as Christians. In Chapters 6–10 he applies his principles by examining the work of five prominent authors: C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, J.K. Rowlings, William Shakespeare and Jane Austin.
Echoes of Eden is also a needed corrective. Christians have not always responded to the arts in good and helpful ways. Some shun the arts as worldly. Others indulge with little thought and even less discernment. And still others believe that the only valid expressions of art are those brought into the church and used within the confines of its services. Barrs dispels these unhealthy responses to art and encourages Christians to look for reflections of truth in the arts.
One of the reasons why we find works of art so compelling is because they ponder life’s big questions. Throughout history our stories, poems and songs have addressed foundational questions that shape our worldview:
- The search for one’s identity: Who am I? Why am I here? What is my purpose in life?
- The search for truth: What is real? What is false? What should I believe?
- The search for paradise: What is wrong with the world around us? Where can I find relief and justice from all the pain in this world? Who or what can make things right again?
These are all quests that can only be truly fulfilled in the grand narrative of history: the Word of God. Barrs helps us identify the echoes of biblical truth in literature and the arts, what he calls “echoes of Eden.” He concludes:
“All great works of art will echo these three elements of Eden: (1) Eden in its original glory, (2) Eden that is lost to us, and (3) the promise that Eden will be restored” (p. 26).
Later he explains:
“It seems that among every people on the face of this earth there is recollection of the original good creation; there is awareness that the world we now live in is broken and fallen, and there is recall of the promise and hope of the restoration of what is good. This true knowledge exists sometimes in stronger form, sometimes in weaker, but it is always present” (p. 74).
These themes are everywhere in art. Art captures our attention and moves us deeply because it touches upon these profound realities of the world in which we live. God did create the world good for us to enjoy. The world is now fallen and not the way it should be. And we do need a way to make things right again.
Echoes of Eden is a welcome encouragement to increase our involvement in the arts as Christians and sharpen our discernment in evaluating and appreciating the arts. All the world belongs to God. As Calvin has said, the world is “a glorious theater” where we “contemplate God’s works” (Institutes 1.6.2). And it is in the world that we as Christians need to engage more in the arts—creating, critiquing and celebrating. We need Christian authors, playwrights, composers, dancers, musicians, poets—all creating and sharing their crafts on the stages of the world to the glory of God. And we need Christians participating in the arts with discernment, celebrating truth wherever it shines through, and using the arts as a way to point others to the real story of God’s work in redemption and rescue through Jesus.