Editor’s Note: This interview was originally published in 2013.
In “Echoes of Eden,” Covenant Seminary professor Jerram Barrs explores why certain books, movies, and plays resonate with something that’s deep within us. In the process, he provides a framework for thinking biblically about art; he shows readers how, as Christians, to read and evaluate literature; and he reveals what some of our most influential writers have in common — from Shakespeare, to Jane Austen, to Tolkien, to C.S. Lewis, and J.K. Rowling.
“In the great art these Christians have produced,” Barrs says, “there are what I call echoes of Eden — memories of the true story of who we are — and of the world as God originally created it — beautiful and good and glorious.” There are also memories of our rebellion and the Fall, he says, “of that sense of the brokenness of our present human condition.” There is, too, “a longing for things to be set right and made new.”
ByFaith spoke with Barrs about how, even in the 21st century, literature that’s written from a Christian worldview continues to have enormous appeal.
Maybe we could begin by having you talk about the relationship of the arts to “the goodness of creation and the goodness of its Creator.”
As we think back to Genesis Chapter 1, we see the account of creation there, and we see that after each aspect of the creation God looks at what He’s made and it’s good. It’s a joy to Him, a delight to His eyes.
We can all recall experiences when we’ve been overwhelmed by the beauty of creation. I remember backpacking the High Sierras in California with my sons and friends. One night we were at about 10-and-a-half thousand feet; we were by a lake, and we were surrounded by an unbelievable number of stars. We were lying there in our sleeping bags — no tents — just looking up at the night sky. Then the moon rose over the Sierra Mountains right behind this lake, and it was so overwhelmingly beautiful we broke out in the doxology. We sang hymns, just overwhelmed by the stars, by the moonlight, by the loveliness of what we were seeing.
We all have experiences like this in our lives, because all of creation is so glorious; it is beautiful, and this making of beauty is fundamental to who God is — He is the great creative artist with the most wonderful imagination, and He has made us to be like Himself.
I’ve just been reading Dorothy Sayers’ “The Mind of the Maker.” She says that the most fundamental way in which we are made in God’s image is that we are creative, that we are artists just as God is the great artist. So whether I am writing or painting or making music or making a meal or tending my flowers — whatever I’m doing — I’m called to image the God who made me and create something that will be a pleasure to others.
“The primal artistic act was God’s creation of the universe out of chaos, shaping the formless into form; and every artist since, on a lesser scale, has sought to imitate him.”
—Laurence Perrine, “Sound and Sense”
In your discussion of appropriate topics for Christian artists, you’re pretty blunt, stating, “There are no secular topics.” Would you elaborate?
There are no secular topics in the same way as there are no secular jobs. Jesus was a carpenter and a fisherman before He became a preacher and an evangelist, and that was perfectly appropriate for Him. I don’t think any Christian would look at the life of Jesus and say “Well, He wasn’t doing something sacred for all those years when He was a carpenter and a fisherman.” Just as we need to stop talking about secular jobs and sacred jobs, I think when we discuss the arts that we should stop using the language of secular topics and sacred topics.
If we take the Bible itself as our most obvious example, it deals with everything. David and the other psalmists, for example, bring their whole lives before God. The Psalms address every aspect of life, which is why we see them as the book of Christian devotion, both for public worship and for private prayer.
The book of Ecclesiastes talks about work and one’s daily life. The Song of Songs expresses the beauty of the sexual relationship between a man and a woman. The book of Proverbs, again, is about marriage and the family and daily temptations; there are proverbs about work, making money, and about spending money. God is interested in everything we do; therefore His Word addresses every aspect of human life.
It should be the same for the Christian artist. I have a brother-in-law, for example, who is a landscape painter. He’s not painting religious pictures; he’s painting landscapes of where he farms in central California. His paintings are beautiful; we have a dozen hanging on the walls of our home, and every visitor comments on them.
Likewise, Christian writers are free to write about anything because God cares about everything. There are no secular topics; there’s simply daily life. The music of Bach is a fascinating example. Yes, Bach wrote sacred music, but he also wrote music for every other kind of occasion. In Japan, where only 1 percent of the population is Christian, Bach’s music is called the “Fifth Gospel.” It could be that Japanese people who become Christians are, before they’re touched by the truth of the Gospel, touched by the beauty of Bach’s music — that after listening to it they begin to reflect on the nature of reality and who God is and who we are and the nature of His world.
It’s the same for Rembrandt. He painted many wonderful pictures of biblical scenes; his painting of the prodigal son, for example, is one of his best-known works. But he painted pictures of butchers and cooks and people’s homes. He used his gifts to paint wonderfully scenes from every aspect of life — fruit and flowers and sides of beef; these are all appropriate subjects for the Christian who is an artist.
As you describe C.S. Lewis’ conversion, you talk about the influence of Christian artists and how their stories, verse, and music — filled with “memories of Eden” — had been calling him since his childhood. Can you tell some more about that?
As Lewis reflected on his life — and this was before he became a believer — he realized that the writers he loved best were Christians. He made this wonderful statement: “The Christians are wrong, but all the rest are bores.” He loved the writings of George MacDonald, who was a Scottish pastor in the 19th century. He started reading G.K. Chesterton during the war, and though he didn’t agree with Chesterton’s Christian convictions, he loved the way he wrote. He loved the work of John Donne and Shakespeare and many others — especially George Herbert, who was writing in the early 1600s. Herbert, who was also a pastor, was Lewis’ favorite poet all his life.
Lewis didn’t agree with their Christian convictions, but he loved the quality of their work and things that they wrote about. These were good writers. They were imaginative. The poets were masters of their craft. That’s the first challenge to the Christian who is an artist — simply to do one’s work well.
Other nonbelievers are no doubt attracted to Christianity for the same reason?
I’ve met all kinds of people whose first step toward Christianity was loving Shakespeare’s plays, or reading or watching “The Lord of the Rings.” They start moving toward the truth because they’re attracted by the qualities of the writing, of the film, of the play, of the poetry, of the painting — and then they start reflecting on the message that’s deeply present within the works.
Shakespeare, for example, is the greatest playwright there has ever been. The reason he’s so attractive — to Christians and non-Christians — is because everyone recognizes the quality of his work. The same is true of Herbert or John Donne. It’s true of Bach. It’s true of Rembrandt. People are attracted by the quality and integrity of their work — and then they start thinking about the content of it, which tells the truth about the human condition, about who God is, who we are, about our problem, and our hope of redemption. So in the great art these Christians have produced there are what I call echoes of Eden — memories of the true story of who we are — and of the world as God originally created it, beautiful and good and glorious.
Secondly, there are memories of our rebellion against God, and the Fall. All great art has that sense of the brokenness of our present human condition. All great art has a longing for things to be set right and made new.
When Christians do their work well, as George Herbert or William Shakespeare did, it’s the quality of the work that first attracts the unbeliever. Then they begin to see this true account, which touches deep chords in their hearts, of who we are as human beings. The artist doesn’t have to set out to be an evangelist, but to simply tell the truth about who we are. That will touch the heart and imagination and mind of the unbeliever.
According to your book, Shakespeare’s enduring popularity is due to his ability to present deep truth with extraordinary clarity, power, and depth of feeling. This ability, you explain, is a product of his Christian worldview. You’re telling us, even in today’s cultural setting, that he’s popular because of that worldview?
Shakespeare was a Christian; therefore a Christian worldview comes across in his plays.
Now, obviously, people go to the theater because they want to see a play that touches the heart, engages the mind, and inspires the imagination. Shakespeare’s plays do that. But in the process, people are responding to more than a powerfully written story; they’re also responding to the message.
Shakespeare’s stories are, at their core, about reality. And all people, whether they’re Christians or not, live in God’s world. All people know the fundamental things about the human situation: that we’re living in this beautiful world, that there are wonderful things in human life — marriage, family, and relationships. Our work, too, is a joy when we have a job we can do well and that engages the whole human person. So our lives are full with these memories of the goodness of creation.
At the same time, every human knows that life is broken, that there are terrible sorrows, crimes, and wars, that there is disorder and disunity in the world. People are moral beings, and they rejoice at what is morally good. That’s why people know that life is not what it ought to be and that things are broken. That’s why anybody who goes to a movie loves the story that ends with a redemptive, restorative theme — where relationships are renewed and where things are set right. Conversely, when a play ends in tragedy, like “Macbeth,” let’s say, or “Hamlet,” people are troubled. They see the brokenness of life, and they respond to it.
Can we say the same thing about Jane Austen? You explain that Austen’s novels convey a “Christian moral order and understanding of the human heart.” If that’s true, how do we explain their popularity?
It’s a fascinating phenomenon, how Jane Austen has become more and more popular. They had a survey in Britain not long ago; it asked women to name the most influential English novel of all time. They responded overwhelmingly — “Pride and Prejudice.”
It’s a funny book, but it’s also a moral tale that upholds sexual fidelity. We’re in a culture today, of course, where people are not sexually faithful, but that’s one of the central themes of “Pride and Prejudice.” The book shows how destructive sexual promiscuity is and how devastating sexual infidelity can be. Nevertheless, for English women today, this is the most influential book on their lives.
Why is Jane Austen still so popular? Well, she presents a character with extraordinary depth, she worked hard to say exactly what she intended, she’s funny. … But these stories are also moral, and people respond to that. They see Lydia going off with this guy to whom she’s not married and living with him in London. People read the book, and they want Wickham and Lydia to get sorted out. They respond to the shame it brings on her sisters and family. They respond to the way she disregards her father’s moral commitments. People are still touched by these things, even though many of them are living immorally. God has written His law on the human heart. Even if people choose to live in disobedience, there is still something attractive about moral beauty.
People respond to righteousness when it’s present in somebody’s personal life, when it’s in a book, and it’s presented in a way that’s beautiful. So when they read “Pride and Prejudice,” everybody wants Elizabeth and Darcy to have a successful romance; they want it to end in a faithful marriage. That is the human response to it. The truth and moral beauty are attractive everywhere, all the time.
“I’m never surprised when I discover that one of my favourite science fiction writers is Christian, because to think about worlds in other galaxies, other modes of being, is a theological enterprise.”
—Madeleine L’Engle, “Walking on Water”
I suspect many readers will be surprised to learn that you find similarities in the works of Lewis and Tolkien to the works of J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter books. Can you talk about the parallels?
I remember when the first J.K. Rowling book came out. I heard her being interviewed on National Public Radio. She told the story of how she wrote the first book, and about the impact that Lewis and Tolkien had had on her. So I went to our local Borders and bought a copy. And I noticed, very early in the series, she makes a statement: “The greatest power in the universe is the power of self-sacrificing love.” I didn’t know at that time that she was a Christian, but I started praying for her. I thought, “anybody who makes such a statement can’t be far from the kingdom.” The greatest power in the universe is indeed the power of self-sacrificing love — of Christ’s sacrifice for us.
As I read that first book, I fell in love with her gifts as an imaginative writer. I fell in love with the characters she creates. I fell in love with her sense of humor. And most of all, I fell in love with her moral vision. She emphasizes self-sacrifice. She emphasizes faithfulness and loyalty and integrity in relationships. She challenges the pursuit of money, power, fame, and success. And she delights in celebrating a life of service to others. All these virtues are beautiful and attractive.
Of course, I started seeing the attacks that Christians began to make on the books, fundamentally for two reasons. First was the magic, including the witches and wizards. Secondly, the books were fantasies, and many Christians are suspicious of fantasy, seeing it as closely related to the occult.
But from the beginning I saw Rowling attempting to do the same kinds of things as Tolkien in “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings,” and C.S. Lewis in his Narnia stories or in his science fiction trilogy for adults. So what are the similarities? Well, the basic similarity is the use of magic. But one has to ask, what is the purpose of the magic? Tolkien makes his characters into elves, wizards, hobbits, or orcs because he wants to put the inside of the person on the outside. It’s the same with Rowling’s witches and wizards. You can immediately see who is good and who is bad. The inside of a person is on the outside. Some Christians looked at this and said Christians are forbidden to have anything to do with magic. But these books aren’t about magic; they’re about good and evil. They’re about virtue, just like “The Lord of the Rings” and the Narnia stories are about good and evil and virtue.
The fantasy and the magic are simply means by which the author helps us to understand the nature of reality. By the time you get to “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows,” it’s evident that Rowling is a Christian, and that much of the book is really a meditation on the last months of Jesus’ life as He moves steadily toward Jerusalem, and the sacrifice of Himself on the cross.
In that book, there are two quotations from the Bible. One of them is: “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” What is Harry Potter’s treasure? Will it be sacrificing his life for his friends to deliver them from the power of the evil Lord Voldemort? Or will he pursue power and fame? That’s the heart of this book.
The second quotation is: “The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death.” And that’s another theme — resurrection. So there are lots of parallels between Tolkien and Lewis and Rowling, but the primary one is the use of magic and fantasy as a practical, imaginative method to tell us about good and evil.
Jerram Barrs (M.Div, Covenant Theological Seminary) is the founder and resident scholar of The Francis Schaeffer Institute at Covenant Theological Seminary, where he teaches apologetics and outreach as professor of Christianity and contemporary culture. He and his wife served on staff at English L’Abri for many years.