Interview by Matthew Claridge–
To the busy pastor, reflecting on the arts can appear to be a very low priority when compared to the work of sermon prep, counseling, evangelism, discipleship, family responsibilities, etc. Enjoying, let alone producing, a film, or a novel, or a painting seems like soul-candy next to the meaty stuff ministry calls for. However, Timothy Keller reports a statement from one such pastor that should give us pause: “I realized if all Christians only evangelize–if no Christians write novels or make movies or work in the culture at all–pretty soon the most basic concepts of Christianity will be so alien that no one will even understand me when I preach” (Center Church, 185) . This pastor is basically saying that without the creative arts, there will be no discipleship, preaching, or evangelism.
Jerram Barrs, professor of Christian studies and contemporary culture at Covenant Theological Seminary, notes this danger and has written an outstanding new book to help reorient Christians to the importance, beauty, and necessity of artistic reflection. The book is entitled, Echoes of Eden: Reflections on Christianity, Literature, and the Arts.
Would you mind explaining your journey first to Christianity and then to a Christian thinking about the arts?
I did not grow up in a Christian home. I was actually converted at university in Manchester, in the north of England. The fellow I became a believer through was a Canadian, Michael Tipshack, who was doing a Ph.D. in philosophy and ethics. I was an undergraduate there in the English department.
Before I became a Christian I really loved good literature and that’s why I was studying it at university. My parents had read aloud to me at home many good books including the works of Tolkein and Lewis, even though my parents were not Christians they both loved good literature no matter where it came from.
The context in which I became a Christian began as I went off to university with several very big questions about life: 1) what does it mean to be human? 2) how do we know the difference between good and evil? 3) is there a resolution to the problem of suffering? I was aware, of course, that all great literature address these questions. I really loved the plays of Shakespeare and he addresses many of these questions himself in his plays. I went off to university just expecting that I would find answers to my questions, but when I got there my professors were not prepared to discuss them. They tried to treat literature as a set of technical exercises rather than being prepared to address the ideas which literature deals with. I remember a moment in American Literature class when we were reading Stephen Crane, his Red Badge of Courage and some of his poetry. In one poem he speaks about the world like a ship which has been set loose on the ocean without a rudder and no means of steering. His poetry expresses a sense of the absurdity and the futility of life. I was greater troubled by this and I asked my professor a question about it in a small seminar one day with half a dozen other students and he just looked at me and laughed at me derisively, “what’s troubling you, are you a nihilist or something?” I wasn’t thinking formally about nihilism or reading nihilist writers, but I quickly came to the conclusion that if I couldn’t find answers to my questions at university at a place of learning studying literature, I wouldn’t find them anywhere.
I began to think that life was absurd, and I became suicidal. Contributing to the disturbed state of my soul was a series of movies such as Ingmar Bergman’s Silence, Wild Strawberries, Antonioni’s Blow Up, and many other films that were expressing the sense in which life raises questions that cannot be answered. Growing in a sense of despair, I decided to throw myself over a cliff outside Manchester at a place called Albany’s edge at Cheshire. It was a day in January, and when I got there it was very cold, just above freezing, but the sun was shining. I stood on the edge of the cliff ready to cast myself over, but then I was struck by the beauty of nature before me. I wouldn’t have called it “creation” at that point in my life, but I thought “I’ve got to keep searching, there’s got to be a reason why this world is so lovely.”
So I took a step backwards rather than a step forward. Just a few days later I met Michael, this Canadian Christian I mentioned before. He was very kind and hospitable. He invited me to his apartment for many meals. One Saturday, he asked me to come over. He mentioned he often had a group over to listen to a talk and have a discussion. I went not knowing what to expect, though I knew he was a Christian. I had not told him what was going on in my own mind and heart because I didn’t know him well enough yet. That particular evening he read the first two chapters of the book of Ecclesiastes, “meaningless, meaningless, everything is meaningless, declares the preacher.” I was completely overwhelmed. I had gone to church as a little boy, and my parents had actually prayed with us every night and read bible stories to us, but they would always say, “we don’t believe this is true, we want you to make up your own mind.” I of course thought, “why should I believe this is true if they don’t?” So I knew something about the Bible but I had no idea there was anything like the book of Ecclesiastes in it, and I had no idea that it addressed the questions that troubled my heart. I had thought of the Bible as most of the people in the culture thought about it in mid 1960s, as a set of fairy stories which weren’t really about the actual world at all, certainly nothing true in it. But here was Michael reading Ecclesiastes and it was describing exactly what I was thinking and where my life was at a time. Ecclesiastes has been my favorite book of the Bible ever since.
That evening, and the way Michael began to answer my questions, I was able to start answering my three biggest questions (“What does it mean to be human? What’s the basis for good and evil? How do we solve the problem of suffering?), and Michael answered my questions by taking the Bible seriously. I myself became a Christian about a year later one evening in his kitchen, kneeling on his kitchen floor. That was in Nov. of 1966.
So that is my journey to faith, but as far as my interest in the arts, that was already there when I became a Christian. It was one of the things, by reading great literature, that led me to my questions and then it was really a matter of getting things in place in terms of a Christian understanding of the arts. Michael himself was very helpful. He loved good books and was fascinated by the literature I was reading. Michael often played tapes by Francis Schaeffer on Saturday nights for our discussion group. He had been greatly influenced by Schaeffer, and the next year I went to work for L’Abri in Switzerland after I graduated with my degree in English literature. I started there as Edith Schaeffer’s cook. Francis Schaeffer at the time was thinking a lot about Christianity and the arts. I remember him giving his lecture on Art and the Bible. When he realized I was interested in that subject, he asked me to give a talk. It was the first talk I ever gave on anything, and my subject was T.S. Eliot and his poem The Waste Land. That’s the beginning of my interest in Christianity and the arts and, of course, it just kept developing from there, all through my years working at L’Abri and as a pastor in England where I was constantly reading and also giving talks about Christianity and the arts. Then when I came to teach at Covenant Reformed Seminary 25 years ago, though it was a bit unusual for a seminary, I immediately began teaching classes on arts, as well as on standard subjects such as apologetics, worship, missions, and pastoral theology.
I see your work falling into two parts. The first part is prescriptive of what art should be and the second descriptive of what art can be. How do you feel this structure serves your readers?
Many Christians I meet have confused ideas about the arts. I think many people in their homes and churches have been taught that the arts are a dangerous enterprise. They have been taught that there is Christian art and then there is the world out there which is a dangerous place. So if a Christian wants to become an opera singer, a ballet dancer, filmmaker, writer, a sculptor, or what have you, they are very often discouraged. The are taught that Christian art is concerned with sacred things: hymns, devotional poetry, devotional painting, and sacred music. Worldly art, on the other hand, they must avoid. And I have known many Christians who have been discouraged from going into art as a career because they have been told it will lead into a immorality and worldly thinking.
That is very sad when you consider the history of the church, either before or after the Reformation. Many of the greatest writers, painters, and artists have been Christians. But for the past one hundred years or so we’ve had this negative legacy toward the arts and discouragement of Christians going into it. There is a lot of confusion here, so what I am trying to do in the first part of the book is to help people think about the arts as Christians and what the Scripture has to say.
One thing in particular I want to challenge Christian is to consider that they benefit from the creative gifts of unbelievers all the time. We all live in homes designed by non-Christians. We use dishes, technologies, and furniture made by non-Christians. We buy these things because we find them beautiful and functional. Everyone buys clothes that they think will compliment them and we don’t think to ask the question, “was this designed by a Christian or a non-Christian?” It’s just the practical question of “what is good?” The same should be true of all the arts, not simply the everyday arts of fabric design and cutlery and architecture, but all the abstract and creative arts. I want Christians to ask the fundamental question, “Is this good, do I enjoy it?” not “is it made and designed by a Christian? is it sacred?”
In the second half of the book I give examples of Christians who have produced great works: Tolkien, Shakespeare, Austen, Lewis, and JK Rowling. I primarily uses examples from literature, but I could have easily taken examples from other creative arts as well. In this section, I primarily want to help Christians see the wonderful quality of art that can be produced by Christians that doesn’t necessarily fall into the category of “sacred art.”
Is there a distinctly “Christian” art form? Or is it better to think in terms of creating art in a distinctly Christian way?
It’s a great question. I don’t think there is a distinctly Christian art form. If you look at the art that Christians have produced all down through the ages, they are the product of particular cultures and times. We are inevitably shaped by the way we produce art as Christians by virtue of the cultural setting in which we live. That’s true of every generation, and so there is not a distinctly Christian art form.
Let’s take some examples from the Bible itself. The Psalms are Proverbs are both cultural forms found among cultures around the Israelites. There are psalms written in praise of the god Baal by the pagan neighbors of the Israelites. Even some of the metaphors used by the biblical psalmists and prophets, some very beautiful poetic metaphors that describe God making the clouds his chariot and riding on the wings of the wind, are actually used of Baal the storm god in Canaanite psalms. So the book of Psalms, which is really the worship handbook and prayer book of the people of God for all generations, is still a cultural artifact from a particularly time-period.
The same is true for Proverbs, which as a cultural form existed in that part of the world at the time when Solomon collected them. As you read though the book of Proverbs, you see that many of them are written by believing Israelites but then there are some that are clearly gathered from the nations around Israel who were not believers. But these pagan proverbs express truth about the human condition, and so Solomon happily puts them together with Israelite proverbs. Those two biblical literary forms, which are not particularly Christian, have been used to express Israel’s believing faith.
That holds true at every moment in history. If you read the plays of Shakespeare, or the poetry of Herbert and Donne, they use artistic forms from their time. If you look at their language and their genre, anyone who knows something literary history can date the time and place of their composition. A Christian may, of course, create new forms and genres. Herbert, Donne, or Shakespeare, while taking cultural patterns from their time, were such great writers that they created new forms of art. But even then these novelties are explicable in terms of what came before.
Rather than thinking in terms of “Christian” art, it is better that we think about creating our work in a distinctly Christian way. A Christian is called in everything they do, whether as a housepainter or a painter of landscapes, to do their work to the glory of God. A Christian will have a lot in common with a non-Christian. The non-Christian creates art to please others and to make a living. And Christians will create for the same reasons, but with this distinctive: we realize that our gifts have been given by God and we am called to use them for his glory and honor. But because of our common ground, Christians can happily read the writing of non-Christians and listen to the music of non-Christians, and look at the paintings of non-Christians. If the non-Christian is creating art that communicates truth about the world, that is well-made, that is a joy to us, and edifying to us, we can enjoy their art gladly.
In fact, you can look at any hymnbook anywhere in the world and you will find many melodies to which we put Christian lyrics that were written by unbelievers. We have cheerfully and gladly adopted those tunes and we sing them to the glory of God. In any hymnbook of the 20th century you will find melodies from Henry Vaughan Williams who wrote sacred music even though he is not a believer. Nonetheless we gladly use his melodies for several quite wonderful hymns.
Do you agree with the statement, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”?
That’s a very interesting question, and I will answer it by saying, “no” and then “yes.” First, I’d say “no” if the question is suggesting that beauty is entirely something personal, private, and relative to the individual. I think that there is an objective reality to beauty, simply because we are living in a world created by God who has made it beautiful. It is objectively beautiful, and this isn’t simply a matter of my opinion. I like to grow flowers for instance; my garden, in fact, is full of flowers at the moment. Flowers are objectively beautiful, whether I see them or not. They were beautiful before any human beings existed, because God made them and declared, “this is beautiful, lovely, and good.” So first, I would say, beauty is not simply in the eye of the beholder. There are objective standards. Some music is objectively more beautiful than other music. It applies to every form of art. Everyone agrees that Shakespeare is objectively the greatest poet and playwright in English literature.
There was a great shift that occurred during the romantic era away from objective standards of beauty. This shift came in response to changes in religion and philosophy which placed humans at the center of reality. The arts therefore became the expression of human genius and prophets with great insight. This is a real shift from a Christian understanding. A Christian believes we live in a universe created by God, we are created by God, and he is the center of reality. Our purpose is to worship, enjoy, and glorify him with our lives. But with the romantic movement, just as philosophy is moving toward a human centered view of really, the arts do as well.
Its not a healthy move, because the artist begins to consider himself too highly as a kind of priest or prophet in the artist’s own religious cult. It can be destructive to the artist personally, because the artist begins to focus entirely on their own perception of reality. The artist then becomes above moral judgment, both in terms of what they are producing—their art is not to be judged because it is simply great art, and no moral judgment can be applies to it—and also the artist cannot be judged because the artist is a very gifted person and so they are above moral categories. That is very destructive to the artist, the arts, and society as well.
There is a fascinating example of this phenomenon from the life Keats. Keats is indeed a great poet and I enjoy reading his poetry. It is objectively good. However, Keats himself was profoundly influenced by the Romantic movement. And so for him “Experience” becomes all consuming. So, for instance, he enjoyed the feel of drinking a glass of ice-cold wine on a hot summer day. That is indeed a pleasant feeling, but he then tried to increase the experience by pouring pepper down his throat before he drank a glass of wine. The poor man was dying of tuberculosis, coughing up blood, and here he is damaging his health for the sake of a more profound experience. Later on, people would start taking drugs in order to produce an experience through which they will produce great art. But that destroys the human person by placing the experience of the artist at the very center.
I love in contrast to think about someone like Jane Austen who as a Christian had a very sensible and practical view of herself. She saw herself first of all as someone called to serve God in her daily life, and then, because she had been given gifts by God as a writer, to serve God with her gifts wisely and well. She didn’t’ think of herself as a greater person simply because she was a great writer. The same was true of Tolkien and Lewis who didn’t think of themselves better than their mailman or grocer because they were great scholars in their fields and great writers. Neither of those things made them special people. They just saw themselves as ordinary people who have been given gifts to bless others and honor the Lord. This is a much more sensible approach for the artist.
At the same time, I will say “yes, beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” in the sense that we all have our own different favorites when we listen to music, look at paintings, or even when we look at flowers or landscapes. Some people enjoy one type of landscape more than another. Some people prefer one flower over another, “my favorite flower is a rose or daisy.” They know that they are not making an objective statement in the sense of saying, “my preference means that this person is the best painter, or this writer is the best author, or this flower is the best flower,” but rather, “these are the paintings, books, and flowers that I like best.” That’s fine and we gladly recognize that people have their different tastes and pleasures. I love fantasy literature for example. I enjoy The Lord of the Rings greatly. I read it at least once a year, sometimes twice a year, all 1300 pages with all the appendices. My wife, on the other hand, is not a fan of fantasy literature. She enjoys watching the Peter Jackson movies with me, but she’s never read the books. I don’t judge her for that or think there is something less admirable about her. She doesn’t doubt that The Lord of the Rings is objectively great literature, but she’s just not into fantasy. That’s fine, there is other kind of literature that she does like. We ought to be glad for other people’s tastes and pleasures, and we don’t make judgments about them and say, “this person is a lesser person, because that’s not the kind of literature they enjoy.” There is a sense in which beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but we want to hold both together, it’s objective and subjective quality.
Matthew Claridge is married to Cassandra and has three children, Alec , Nora, and Grace. He is an editor for Credo Magazine and is Senior Pastor of Mt. Idaho Baptist Church in Grangeville, ID. He has earned degrees from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.