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.

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