Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Book Review - Echoes of Eden

I have been very impressed with books published by Crossway that pertain to literature and its study. I have reviewed several Crossway books on related topics and Echoes of Eden: A Reflection on Christianity, Literature, and the Arts is another impressive literature-related book. Authored by Covenant Theological Seminary professor Jerram Barrs, Echoes of Eden is an intriguing and instructive reflection on literature and the arts, and the Christian’s interaction with them.

The book is comprised of ten chapters, five of which deal with theoretical and doctrinal issues that pertain to literature and the arts. The last five chapters apply the ideas of the earlier chapters by analyzing world-renowned authors; Lewis, Tolkien, Rowling, Shakespeare, and Austen. My review will focus on the theoretical chapters and the consideration of the great authors I will leave to the reader. The chapters dealing with the great literature of the aforementioned authors are informative and convincing and will be gratifying to those who love these authors and enlightening to the unfamiliar or unimpressed.

The title of the first chapter is a good indication of what is covered: God and Humans as Creative Artists. However, before discussing God as creator and humans as sub-creators, Barrs indicates an overarching goal that he intends to pursue. He desires to help the reader answer the question, “How are Christians to think about the arts?” (11). To begin to answer that question, Barrs develops ideas about creation and creativity. He delineates four aspects of God’s creative genius and five foundational doctrines on the richness of life on this planet. He discusses how humans are God’s image bearers and therefore sub-creators and then introduces five callings humans have in being creative. This chapter sets a solid foundation on which Barrs builds his ideas around the appreciation of art.

The second chapter instructs Christians on how they should approach creativity, focusing on humility and the imitative nature of our creative process. Barrs encourages Christians to remember that we are dependent creatures and our creativity reflects that. The author endorses human creativity as both a means to enter into God’s creation as well as a way to recognize and reinforce one’s own individuality without getting lost in it. He finishes this section discussing Christian and Non-Christian art, the relationship between arts and crafts, and why we should pursue creativity.

The next chapter begins to narrow in its focus looking primarily at Christianity, Christians, and art. He purports a Christian understanding of the calling of the Christian artist and identifies what we often mean when we discus Christian art; art designed for worship, art with Christian content, art that teaches Christian principles, and art produced by Christians. Barrs significantly expands these popular notions of Christian art by declaring “there are no secular topics” (43) because all “creation is God’s creation and therefore is proper material for artistic expression” (43).  He concludes chapter three by examining the Biblical stance on representational art as well as his ideas on abstract art. This chapter would be particularly helpful for those who, as Christians, have reservation about art.

The fourth chapter instructs the reader on how one goes about judging art, discerning the good in art and holding fast to it. He presents eleven criteria by which we can judge art, whether it is literature, music, sculptures, paintings, or any other genre. Barrs never suggests that all art is awesome and edifying. Rather, he insists our appreciation of the arts is in need of “direction, encouragement, training, and practice” (54). This section identifies how we ought to approach art and what we should be looking for. His eleven criteria include thoughts such as the presence of giftedness from God, respect for tradition of a discipline, the presence of truth and goodness, and integrity of the artist to name but a few.

The final chapter I will discuss is the fifth chapter, the section in which Barrs discusses the namesake of the book; echoes of Eden. Barrs explains that literature and art appeal to us ultimately because in them we encounter the echoes of Eden. Barrs delays that conversation by initially presenting other ways in which God reveals himself to all people in general revelation. These means God uses to testify to himself and his truth include creation, humanity, providence, and his rule over nations. The final way God communicates to all humans is through the echoes of Eden. These echoes, “memories within the human race of the truth about our condition” (74), are to be found in religion, myths, legends, and in literature. Apprehending, appreciating, and applying these echoes is of utmost importance, and Barrs declares that “Christians today need to be prepared to utilize these echoes of Eden wherever they are found” (84). With this chapter Barrs has given us a good start to that end.

The following chapters that look into the writings and lives of some literary giants are inspiring. I found myself wanting to reread works that Barrs mentions as well as read for the first time others that receive his commendation. Despite not covering those chapters in this review, I can say they were very enjoyable to read and they are excellent examples of applying the information presented earlier in the book.

Echoes of Eden is a book for those who love literature and other forms of art. It will aid those who want to love and understand these wonderfully creative means of communication that god has given to humans. And for those who look disparagingly or doubtfully on art, this book will challenge your presuppositions and misconceptions alike. I highly recommend it.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013


Is there too much gospel-talk these days? too much cross-talk? I have seen and read some discussion about current Christianity's use, or perhaps overuse, of terms that involve gospel and cross and the like.

My first thought when I read these articles, blog posts, and various other forms of communication is: what is the alternative? Should we not be talking about the cross and the gospel? Should these things not be the focus of our conversations and communications? Unlikely.

What I think concerned Christians are getting at is the idea that it seems easy these days to talk about the gospel, to fit gospel into a catchy title for a conference, or liberally season our writing with related phrases and vocabulary. And when it is easy and hip and cool to speak/write/think a certain way, it can often be done so in a less than genuine way.

And I think the more important issue in this case is the integrity with which we use the words as opposed to the frequency with which we use them.

J. C Ryle wrote on this many years ago in his classic book on sanctification called simply Holiness:
True sanctification then does not consist in talk about religion. This is a point which ought never to be forgotten. The vast increase of education and preaching in these latter days makes it absolutely necessary to raise a warning voice. People hear so much of Gospel truth that they contract an unholy familiarity with its words and phrases, and sometimes talk so fluently about its doctrines that you might think them true Christians. In fact it is sickening and disgusting to hear the cool and flippant language which many pour out about “conversion - the Saviour - the Gospel - finding peace - free grace,” and the like, while they are notoriously serving sin or living for the world. Can we doubt that such talk is abominable in God’s sight, and is little better than cursing, swearing, and taking God’s name in vain? The tongue is not the only member that Christ bids us give to His service. God does not want His people to be mere empty tubs, sounding brass and tinkling cymbals. We must be sanctified, not only “in word and in tongue, but in deed and truth.” (1 John iii. 18.)
As is evident, Ryle played hardball. But again, he is not condemning the accurate and honest use of the words. What he contends against is the "cool and flippant" employing of phraseology that sounds Christian when there is a lack of Christian sanctification evidenced in the life.

So, I say keep using the words. Let our speech be seasoned with talk of the cross and let our writing be permeated with gospel this and gospel that. But let our words, whether in our mouths or on our screens, be spoken with authenticity.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Christian criticism of artists

In Echoes of Eden, a very helpful and engaging book by Jerram Barrs, the author suggests two criticisms or challenges that Christians who desire to become artists often face. The first is the simple fact that "art is considered by many in our churches to be unnecessary and unspiritual, even wordly" (37). The second criticism is not leveled at art itself, but rather the artist; "the Christian who perseveres and enters the arts has to face all sorts of criticisms: the charge of hedonism, of worldliness, of being sinful or carnal" (37).

Barrs, with those Christians who feel called to the arts in view, suggests a response on behalf of those gifted individuals:

  • Art needs no justification. It is simply a gift of God, part of his created reality, to be received like any other gift-with gratitude.
  • We must not say that "art for art's sake," for this is the Romantic heresy. Art is to be tied to the reality of God's creation and to our human calling to live as his image bearers.
  • The Christian artist will regard himself or herself as a craftsperson. Artists will see themselves not as self-serving visionaries, but as ordinary humans (that is glorious enough!) with a particular calling from God to serve him and their fellow humans by working with words, music, color, stone, metal, and so on.
  • Most importantly, the Christian in the arts will be committed to humility. The true artist does not say, "I will be an artist, an inspired voice of the gods" (this is too religious a claim), or the "revealer of truth," as if a prophet, or a "self-revealing genius" (these suggest only the artist can truly see reality). Rather, the true artist sees his or her work within the context of and as a subset of God's larger and infinitely more creative work. The true artist values something more than self. The true artist holds up a mirror to what God has made. (37-8)

Friday, June 21, 2013

The breaking of a covenant

As their exposition of the Biblical covenants progresses, Wellum and Gentry discuss, in the noteworthy book Kingdom Through Covenant, the collapse of the first covenant that God had made with Adam

There was a real and vital element of condition in the covenant relationship in the garden. Eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was prohibited. We know that the conditions for maintaining love, loyalty, and trust in the covenant relationship were not met. When the fruit of the forbidden tree was eaten, we were all involved somehow, as Romans 5:12–21 makes plain. 
A brief comment is necessary to discuss the breaking of the covenant. Just what was involved in this initial transgression? Was the prohibition against eating the fruit of the forbidden tree an arbitrarily imposed means for testing loyalty and obedience? This is surely true, but it does not do justice to what was offered by the snake and confirmed by God after the Fall, that they would be “like gods, knowing good and evil” (see Gen. 3:5, 22). 
Some have explained knowing good and evil as reflecting sexual understanding of each other. This is inadequate because it does not make plain how the acquisition of such knowledge would make one like God. 
Others have explained good and evil as a way of expressing the totality of knowledge by describing opposite poles. But certainly neither Adam and Eve nor any subsequent humans can claim the totality of knowledge. 
The best explanation to date is that of W. M. Clark,93 who carefully analysed all the occurrences of the phrase in the Hebrew Bible and showed that the “knowledge of good and evil” has to do with the exercise of absolute moral autonomy. That is to say, knowing good and evil means choosing or determining for oneself what is right and wrong independently of God. The decision of Adam to be self-legislating did make him like God in one sense, but also unlike God in that he would not be able to foresee the consequences of his choices long term or always be certain of the issues before him. (216-7)

I found this excerpt very enlightening. The independent determination of dependent creatures of what is right and wrong is a step on which we "must fall down, or else o’er-leap." In attempting to over leap God in a brazen act of autonomy, the human race fell. With absolute moral authority came absolute moral depravity. This was a breaking of a covenant with dire consequences. It causes us to look forward to that time when a covenant between God and us would not depend on our faithfulness, but his.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Echoes of Eden in Cormac McCarthy's The Road

In my previous two posts, I discussed what author and professor Jerram Barrs means by echoes of Eden and how he describes the apostle John's use of an echo of Eden in the twelfth chapter of Revelation. Today we will consider an example of an echo of Eden in the Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Road by Cormac McCarthy.

First here is a synopsis of the book fromWikipedia:
An unnamed father and his young son journey across a grim post-apocalyptic landscape, some years after a major unexplained cataclysm has destroyed civilization and most life on Earth. The land is filled with ash and devoid of living animals and vegetation. Many of the remaining human survivors have resorted to cannibalism, scavenging the detritus of city and country alike for flesh. The boy's mother, pregnant with him at the time of the disaster, gave up hope and committed suicide some time before the story began, despite the father's pleas. 
Realizing that they cannot survive the oncoming winter where they are, the father takes the boy south, along empty roads towards the sea, carrying their meager possessions in their knapsacks and in a supermarket cart. The man coughs blood from time to time and eventually realizes he is dying, yet still struggles to protect his son from the constant threats of attack, exposure, and starvation. 
In the face of these obstacles, the man repeatedly reassures the boy that they are "the good guys" who are "carrying the fire." On their journey, the duo scrounge for food, evade roving bands, and contend with horrors such as a newborn infant roasted on a spit, and captives being gradually harvested as food. 
Although the man and the boy eventually reach the sea, their situation does not improve. They head back inland, but the man succumbs to an illness. Before he dies, the father tells the boy that he can continue to speak with him in his imagination after he is gone. The boy holds wake over the corpse for days, with no idea of what to do next. 
On the third day, the grieving boy encounters a man who says he has been tracking the pair. The man, who has a woman and two children of his own, a boy and a girl, convinces the boy that he is one of the "good guys" and takes him under his protection.

Now, let me remind you of an echo of Eden as described in Echoes of Eden. Jerram Barrs writes,
One of the striking elements of much pagan religion is the following story, here presented in summary. There is the hope of the birth of a divine son, a hero, or warrior. There is a declaration of enmity against this divine son and the threat of his destruction at birth. There is heavenly protection provided for the newborn infant. Then the heavenly child defeats his enemy (80).
Even in the synopsis of The Road above, we can see vestiges of the divine child echo that is present in Revelation 12 as well as the Greek myth of Apollos' birth. Let's consider the main ideas of this echo of Eden.

  1. The hopeful birth of a divine child. The father in The Road clearly perceives his son as a special gift from God. He indicates this declaring "He knew only that the child was his warrant. He said: If he is not the word of God God never spoke." The father recognizes the boy as a type of divine child whose birth would bring hope.
  2. The threat of destruction at his birth. His enemy was despair, and it was embodied in his mother. Of his birth she says, "My heart was ripped out of me the night he was born so dont ask for sorrow now." Presumably, when he was born his mother did not want him. She certainly did not want his life to continue as a young boy; she speaks of killing herself and her child swearing, "I'd take him with me if it werent for you. You know I would. It's the right thing to do." It seems that the very day he was born she screamed for his death; the father ignored her: "A few nights later she gave birth in their bed by the light of a drycell lamp ... Her cries meant nothing to him ... He held aloft the scrawny red body so raw and naked and cut the cord with kitchen shears and wrapped his son in a towel."
  3. A heavenly protector. The father also believes he is ordained by God to be the boy's heavenly protector: "My job is to take care of you. I was appointed to do that by God. I will kill anyone who touches you." He would not succumb to despair and he would not let his charge, his son, despair either: "This is what the good guys do. They keep trying. They dont give up."
  4. The defeat of his enemy. Finally, the boy, a divine child of sorts, defeats his enemy, despair, and continues his journey on the road. Interestingly when his father dies, he remains with his dead corpse in mourning, but does not sink into despair. Three days later he returns to the road and finds a new family. The boy is with the dead for three days, rises, and returns to life on the road; divine child indeed! "He stayed three days and then he walked out to the road and he looked down the road and he looked back the way they had come. Someone was coming ... Are you one of the good guys? The man pulled back the hood from his face. His hair was long and matted. He looked at the sky. As if there were anything there to be seen. He looked at the boy. Yeah, he said. I'm one of the good guys."

We see in The Road clear evidence of an echo of Eden. In this post-apocalyptic story we see a hint, a shadow. of the true story of the divine child who overcomes a threat at his birth and eventually defeats his enemy. The great truths of our faith are seen even in secular literature. I find this uplifting and edifying. This adds immense value to a book that I already found enjoyably entertaining. I'm thankful for Jerram Barrs' wonderful book Echoes of Eden for opening my eyes to this.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

The woman, the dragon, and the child

In yesterday's post I attempted to explain what Jerram Barrs means by "echoes of Eden" as he describes them in his book of the same name. Today I'll attempt to share how he explains the apostle John's use of echoes of Eden in the apocalyptic book Revelation. Tomorrow, I'll follow that up by showing a similar echo of Eden in Cormac McCarthy's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Road.

Barrs contends  there is a significant echo of Eden used by John. The apostle, claims Barrs, makes "dramatic use of a legend" (79) in the "highly pictorial and symbolic account of the birth of Jesus and his victory over the Serpent" (79). The vision which Barrs repeats in detail is from Revelation 12:
And a great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. She was pregnant and was crying out in birth pains and the agony of giving birth. And another sign appeared in heaven: behold, a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and on his heads seven diadems. His tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven and cast them to the earth. And the dragon stood before the woman who was about to give birth, so that when she bore her child he might devour it. She gave birth to a male child, one who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron, but her child was caught up to God and to his throne, and the woman fled into the wilderness, where she has a place prepared by God, in which she is to be nourished for 1,260 days. (Revelation 12:1-6 ESV)
Barr indicates that there are "several aspects of this story that would have been familiar to John's readers from the pagan mythology widely known in their part of the world" (80). Barrs introduces a myth from Greece that was strikingly similar. Zeus and Leto conceive a son and before the child is born the great dragon, Python, threatens to destroy the child when it is born. The sea god, Poseidon, offers the fleeing Leto refuge and Apollo is safely born. Apollo then pursues the dragon Python and slays him. Barrs insists that this "Greco-Roman version of this common myth is the one with which all the people of the churches of Asia Minor would have been familiar" (80). Interestingly, Barrs also notes that the reigning emperor, Domitian, claimed to be the incarnation of Apollos. Barrs is convinced that John's readers would know of this myth and  furthermore, that John intended to use it.

We are left wondering why John, and for that matter God, would use the framework of a pagan myth in Revelation. Barrs answers, "In his recounting of the war in heaven and the hostility of the great dragon to Christ, John is showing that Christ is indeed the fulfillment of any vestige of truth found in the myths of the pagans" (81). He continues, "There is a double element in what John is doing here...On the one hand, he is declaring that Christ is the fulfillment of all the best hopes and longings of paganism...John is also giving them a very serious challenge: Don't turn back again to the myths and stories and idols of paganism. They are not the truth and they have no power to save" (81).

This echo is described earlier by Barrs in very general terms. It is this echo that I will demonstrate, in tomorrow's post, that can be seen in the The Road by Cormac McCarthy. This is how Barrs describes it:
One of the striking elements of much pagan religion is the following story, here presented in summary. There is the hope of the birth of a divine son, a hero, or warrior. There is a declaration of enmity against this divine son and the threat of his destruction at birth. There is heavenly protection provided for the newborn infant. Then the heavenly child defeats his enemy (80).
It is readily apparent how the aforementioned myth of Zeus, Leto, Python, Poseidon, and Apollo matches the pattern Barrs has described. It remains to be seen if The Road contains a similar narrative echo of Eden.

Monday, June 17, 2013

What are the echoes of Eden?

I recently finished reading Echoes of Eden by Jerram Barrs and have found it to be book full of helpful instruction and useful information. As a high school English teacher, this past week I used a couple ideas from the book in an assignment for my grade 12 class. I thought I might share one of the very beneficial and informative concepts from the book.

One of the principal ideas, if not the principal idea, of Barrs' book is expressed in the following quotes:
We turn now from our reflections about the nature of the arts to consider an issue that I think will help us understand the universal appeal of art: its echoes of the truth about the human condition (67). 
All over the world there is a sense that our present life in this world is one of having lost our way from our original dwelling place, a place that was better and more beautiful than the place in which we now live.
All over the world there is the knowledge that our present condition is one of alienation and rebellion, that we are not all we should be, that there is brokenness and tragedy in all of human life.
All over the world there is a longing for this brokenness to be set right, and there is the hope for a redeemer. Some of these elements of the biblical story are present in almost every nation's story about the past (75) 
We might even say that all great literature addresses these issues of creation, fall, and redemption because this is the human condition, and there appears to be a racial memory of these things, or perhaps what Jung called "a collective unconsciousness" that recalls these deep longings and shady recollections of the true story of the origin, dilemma, and hope for our race (79).
What Barrs is suggesting here is that literature, specifically great literature, will contain shadowy, and sometime solid, elements of the true revelation that God has given us. God's gracious outpouring of general revelation as seen by all peoples in can be found in creation, humanity, providence, and God's sovereignty. But Barrs suggests that this general revelation can also be discerned in religion, myths, and legends; and its these in particular that he calls Echoes of Eden. He writes,
This fifth means of God's revelation of himself is the pool of memories within the human race of the truth about our condition: what I am calling here "echoes of Eden." It seems among every people on the face of the earth there is a recollection of the original good creation; there is awareness that the world we now live in is broken and fallen, and there is a 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 is always present (74)
Barrs finishes the chapter with an imperative:
Christians today need to be prepared to utilize these echoes of Eden wherever they are found, just as did the apostles Paul and John and the Old Testament prophets. The biblical authors used these echoes because pagan religions did indeed contain memories of the true story of our fall into sin and sorrow, our present plight under the powers of darkness, and the hope for a redeemer (84).
In my next post, I'll indicate how Barrs demonstrates that John the apostle used an echo of Eden in the book of Revelation. Then, I'll attempt to explain one of these echoes as it appears in a wonderful novel by Cormac McCarthy; The Road.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Epic Battle: Dad vs. Cookies

In case you were wondering what was better, chocolate chip cookies or me.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Bavinck on the foundations of theology

"Holy Scripture is the external instrumental efficient cause of theology, and divine revelation also requires the internal illumination of the Holy Spirit. We thus identify three fundamental principles for theology: God is the essential foundation (principium essendi); Scripture is the external cognitive foundation (principium cognoscendi); and the Holy Spirit is the internal principle of knowing (principium cognoscendi internum). The foundations of theology are thus trinitarian: The Father, through the Son as Logos, imparts himself to his creatures in the Spirit." Harman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

5 aspects of creativity

I have recently finished reading Echoes of Eden: Reflections on Christianity, Literature, and the Arts by Jerram Barrs. It is a wonderfully helpful book discussing issues revolving around literature but also touching upon all the arts. I think it would be very helpful to students, as well as parents who are wary of the arts. Barrs does a masterful job in providing sound reasons for enjoying literature and ways to look at literature to appreciate its value.

Early in the book Barrs considers creativity and how it is interconnected with Christianity. I appreciated the 5  aspects of creativity he puts forward for us to consider as we image God in the creative process:

  1. We are to seek to glorify God in all we do.
  2. We are designed to find fulfillment for ourselves in using, developing, and expressing the gifts God has so richly given to us.
  3. We are to seek to be of benefit to others, so that they may be able to look at what we create and say of it, "It is good." The Christian artist always lives in a community and is called to serve others in the development and expression of the gifts God has given to each one for the blessing of all.
  4. In being creative, we fulfill our human design by exercising dominion over the earth.
  5. We are called, in all we do, including in our creative work, to set back the boundaries of the fall, to restrain the abnormality of our present human life in its brokenness and sorrow and of our resent world that is under the curse and therefore resists our dominion. (22)

Friday, June 7, 2013

For fear of snickers!

Vern Poythress, in his helpful and heart-strengthening book on harmonization of the Gospels called Inerrancy and the Gospels, develops an interesting discussion on intellectual suffering. Poythress draws attention to these oft-overlooked types of trial and encourages readers to face and overcome them. That being said, he also gives the following well-balanced reminder lest we develop a martyr-syndrome:
I said that I do not depreciate the agonies of intellectual suffering that some people may have gone through. Only God knows the story of each of us. But for the sake of balance I should also note that sometimes we give in to temptation under less violent circumstances. Most of us have not come to the point of being screaming martyrs stretched on the rack or whipped until unconscious (Heb. 12:4). Instead, we give in for fear of snickers! We swallow the propaganda that the Bible is outmoded for fear of being thought foolish or uncool. Or maybe we yield when we face the threat of losing a grade or a diploma (111).

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Sonship and Kingship

One of the many interesting discussions in Kingdom Through Covenant deals with man being made in the image of God. This topic gets a lengthy discussion in the book. The authors, of course, interact with the Bible in this regard, but they also deal with the societal context of image during the biblical times. The authors eventually produce a succinct and two-fold concept for what the image of God means:
Genesis 1:26 defines a divine-human relationship with two dimensions, one vertical and one horizontal. First, it defines human ontology in terms of a covenant relationship between God and man, and second, it defines a covenant relationship between man and the earth. The relationship between humans and God is best captured by the term sonship. The relationship between humans and the creation may be expressed by the terms kingship and servanthood, or better, servant kingship.(200)
Thus, imaging God can be described as sonship and servant kingship. And this imaging results in two relationships of significance, our relationship to God and our relationship to creation.
Man is the divine image. As servant king and son of God mankind will mediate God’s rule to the creation in the context of a covenant relationship with God on the one hand and the earth on the other. (201)