How are Christians to think about Literature and the Arts?
Is it okay to read works by Shakespeare, Austen, and Rowling? Should we only listen to music, read books, or watch films that have been produced by fellow believers? Do we?
As Christians, do we take delight in the architecture of buildings, monuments, cathedrals, interior decoration, clothes, or beautifully prepared and presented meals without asking if the architect, builder, designer, manufacturer, or chef is a committed believer in the Lord Jesus Christ?
In Echoes of Eden: Reflections on Christianity, Literature, and the Arts, Jerram Barrs, Professor of Christian Studies and Apologetics at Covenant Theological Seminary, shares his passions by allowing us a glimpse of the beauty, truth, and grace he sees in the imaginative work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, J.K.Rowling, Shakespeare, and Jane Austen.
In my previous blog, Art and the Bible, by Francis A. Schaeffer, we looked at this primer on biblical creativity which is designed to teach us to “create out of a worldview” with a focus on Art and creation [see post] .
For this blog, we will look specifically at the art of Literature, Speaking and Writing using gifts of language [literature, poetry, devotions]. C.S. Lewis recognized that all great artists acknowledge that there is something outside themselves that is greater than they are, and that is greater than the works that they make:
“The greatest poems (indeed all of the greatest artistic works) have been made by men who valued something else much more than poetry. Each painter, sculptor, writer, composer, musician, or designer sees something of the world we do not see, and so as we look or listen or read, we are enriched by each artist’s vision”(28).
Barrs refers to man and woman, God’s image bearers, as sub-creators who follow after their Creator. The arts that we create (paintings, architecture, literature, music, culinary arts, handi-work, etc) are “imitations” of God’s original creation. (29) He gives several examples of famous writers who were sub-creators; these great artists combined their original thoughts with “copies” of God’s first creation: John Donne, T.S. Eliot, Shakespeare, Bach, Rembrandt, and Van Gogh.
Christian artists need to regard themselves as creatures of God, using gifts given by God, delight in the world God made, do their work for the glory of God, and devote their labors to the enrichment of the lives of others.
God has not made us to be isolated individuals who find fulfillment simply by ourselves or even only in a relationship with Him. He has made us for others so that, though finite persons, we together can reflect the unity and diversity within the godhead, and can take delight in the gifts, wisdom, and insight of our fellow men and women (29).
What specific artist has inspired you? Can you name three artists whom you admire and the work they produced that have inspired you? [This can be a visual artist, musician, author, etc.]
What if Bach had never shared his compositions outside of his home (Air on the G string-Suite No. 3 BWV 1068)? Or if Debussy had never shared Clair de Lune? If Van Gogh, Monet, and Renoir had not captured the night stars, sunsets, and freshly fallen snow through landscapes? If Victor Hugo had kept his imagination to himself and had not shared the sacrifice, grace, and forgiveness of his greatest character, Jean Valjean? For me, these artistic creations have brought respite to my sometimes-weary soul!
WHY READ LITERATURE?
As a Professor of World Literature, this is the first question I ask my students each semester. In my courses, we examine several works in Classic Literature: works that have been accepted as being exemplary or particularly noteworthy. These works have been reinterpreted and renewed in the interests of generations of readers succeeding in their creation.
Echoes is one of the required texts for a Seminary course I teach as I believe that Barrs does an exemplary job of giving a balance between theory and literary criticism of authors of Classic Literature. In this course, we engage in “good reading”. C.S.Lewis illustrates the benefits of “good reading”:
- in the moral sphere, every act of justice or charity involves putting ourselves in the other person’s place and thus transcending our own competitive particularity;
- it admits to us experiences other than our own;
- it heals wounds, without undermining the privilege of individuality.
Why do you read Literature? What benefits do you receive? What is your favorite book that you have read? Favorite Author? What genre appeals to you the most?
How do we determine what is “good reading” for ourselves, our children, and our grandchildren?
How are we to set about the task of testing everything and holding fast to that which is good? As Parents and Grandparents, how do we monitor what our children and grandchildren are reading, watching, or listening to? What are some standards you use or have used in the past to help your children “hold fast to what is good” when it comes to the arts? In addition, what standards do you use to monitor your involvement with the arts?
In Chapter 4, Barrs gives several objective standards in which to judge any work of art, whether in music, literature, filmmaking, painting, sculpture, dance, or any other field. These are partly a matter of giftedness, intuition, experience, and common sense! Keep in mind that every family unit is different and should determine what is right for THEIR family through the leading of the Holy Spirit!
I have summarized some of the objectives that Barrs suggests here.
We should ask:
- Is the artist using their gifts for others as well as for their own fulfillment? 
- Is there a humble submission to the rules of one’s discipline and respect for traditions
- Is the work of art in accord with reality?
- What is the moral intention of the artist? 
- Is there technical excellence?
- Is the work true to who the artist is? 
- Does the artist seek to manipulate our emotional response by cheap tricks, or does the artist seek to generate a genuine emotional response through the power of the work?
In the final Chapters of Echoes, Barrs shares his passion by allowing us a glimpse of the beauty, truth, and grace he sees in the imaginative work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, J.K.Rowling, Shakespeare, and Jane Austen. These chapters were so fascinating to me and gave me new insight into the minds of these great writers and their purposes in writing these great novels.
- C. S. Lewis wrote The Chronicles of Narnia for the children of WWII who were evacuated from London and living with him during the bombings of the Luftwaffe by Nazis (85).
- J.R.R. Tolkien wrote his stories as echoes of memories of the truth that God had originally made known to Adam and Eve with hints of the promise of hope and redemption (95).
- J.K.Rowling wrote Harry Potter for children to create a world of fantasy which she states is “a foundational part of being a human made in the image of God (133)”.
- Shakespeare : according to Barrs, Shakespeare’s characters are persons made by and for God, persons wandering from Him, and persons in need of deliverance from their broken lives (155).
Barrs, Jerram. Echoes of Eden: Reflections on Christianity, Literature, and the Arts. Wheaton, Ill: Crossway, 2013.
Lewis, C. S. “Christianity and Literature”, Genesis: Journal of the Society of Christians in the Arts, Inc 1, no. 2 ,1975: 22.
________ An Experiment in Criticism, 138-41.
Hi I love your posts. Thanks so much!Excellent ideas. I dont trust any artist that has no God:) love Paris and go there each July. I now live in Umbria.You should let your readers know there is now an American Shakespeare. Mark Chandos. I was surprised. America has an epic poet. His books are just now appearing to the public in America. See Kosmoautikon.com Best Maj Rendina
Hi Mark, thank you for participating in my journey! I will check our Mark Chandos, good recommendation. Blessings, Robyn
The floor in that pic reminded me of the Shakespeare and Company bookstore in Paris. Odd reflection, I know 🙂
Hi Amitesh, that picture was taken of me reading in Shakespeare and Company, Paris- my favorite place to be!!Notre Dame is just outside the window. Otherworldly! Robyn
And I just took a wild guess. When I visited in 2017, there was a resident cat, too.
Wonderful post. Thanks for the connections. I really enjoyed the Rowling quotes.
Very Interesting post as someone who has grown up as part of the church of Scotland often Christianity seeps into what I’m writing. I think its important to still teach children about Christianity as we live in a christian country and if anything it can help their literacy , social skills and allows them to have morals to not steal , or judge people or commit evil acts. Stories like the good Samaritan are important to teach. My mother was once a Sunday school teacher and now there isn’t even a Sunday school. I find this sad as I had so much fun growing up as part of the church.
This is fascinating-my husband’s family is Scottish. The teachings of Scripture are timeless and vital to surviving in our challenging world. The most important part of Christianity for me is having a personal, growing relationship with Christ. If you would like to know more of how to connect with God personally, I would be happy to visit with you! Robyn