Echoes of Eden: Reflections on Christianity, Literature, and the Arts

Written by Jerram Barrs Reviewed By Jacki Price-Linnartz

In Echoes of Eden, Jerram Barrs argues that evangelicals shouldn’t fear art, but should instead selectively and joyfully embrace it. His main thesis is that all good art contains “echoes of Eden”—glimpses of humanity’s original creation, fall into sin, and ultimate redemption. To best appreciate the book, keep in mind that Barrs is writing from a Reformed (PCA) perspective for a lay audience that has been told to shun not only Voldemort, but Harry Potter, too.

The first five chapters make theological claims about art, while the last five offer case studies. Barrs begins by arguing that God and humanity are creative artists. A biblical doctrine of creation affirms the goodness of materiality. Materiality is further affirmed by the doctrines of common grace, the Incarnation, bodily resurrection, and the new creation, although sadly Barrs only expands on the first two. Additionally, God created humans in God’s image to be sub-creators, which means we’re to exercise loving “dominion” with our artistic gifts.

Chapter 2 calls for art to strive for “imitation” rather than the Romantic “self-expression” of god-like artists. For Barrs, “the true artist sees his or her work . . . as a subset of God’s larger and infinitely more creative work,” “values something more than self,” and “holds up a mirror to what God has made” (p. 38). Art excels when it reveals some aspect of ultimate reality, visible or invisible, and therefore both representational and abstract art can answer this call.

The question of “Christian” versus “non-Christian” art comes up in chapters 2 and 3. Art by non-Christians can edify us because we learn from others’ perspectives, we’re created to need others, all are created in God’s image, all receive common grace, and non-Christians can have God-given gifts. Moreover, all art should be judged by the same standards: there’s no secular-Christian divide because all art can and should offer echoes of Eden (i.e., our creation, fall, or redemption).

As an aside, Barrs explains that the second commandment doesn’t forbid art; instead, it is principally concerned with idolatry. In fact, Barrs finds ample biblical affirmations of representations, even suggesting that they will exist “in heaven” (p. 47).

Chapter 4, on judging the arts, is perhaps the most problematic part of the book. Instead of asking if an artwork meets the criteria offered by its context, or how well it “echoes Eden,” Barrs offers eleven criteria that vacillate between judging the quality or moral status of an artwork to judging the qualifications or morality of the artist. Furthermore, it isn’t clear which of these are necessary or sufficient. His point here is that, although personal preference matters, there are also objective standards—a point that needs sharpening. He does helpfully note that moral and artistic giftedness are independent gifts.

Chapter 5 is the book’s keystone. According to Barrs, there are five locations of God’s general revelation: creation, humans, God’s providential care, God’s rule over history, and the “echoes of Eden”—i.e., “the pool of memories within the human race of the truth about our condition” (p. 74). These echoes resound throughout history like a Jungian collective memory, whispering that there’s one great God, we’re lost from a better place, something tragic happened due to rebellion, we must hope for a redeemer, and this requires sacrifice and atonement.

While I take issue with several of the arguments used here, the heart of the matter is unassailable. Christians can hear echoes of God’s truth as we know it in art and stories of diverse kinds—and this is true whether or not these echoes are carried on the winds of collective memory, God’s general revelation, or otherwise. God calls us to discern these echoes and respond with praise.

Chapters 6–10 heed the call to listen for these echoes, specifically in the Chronicles of Narnia, the Lord of the Rings, the Harry Potter series, and the works of Shakespeare and Jane Austen. I especially appreciate Barrs’s argument that these authors portray Christian-supported principles in ways that successfully witness to non-Christians. Christians also benefit from stories (aside from the Christian story): we can learn from whatever “truth” we find in art (p. 136), and a well-wrought narrative makes it “easier for us to be touched by the [story’s] moral issues” (p. 178).

Echoes of Eden is charitable, considered, accessible, and well-suited to its audience. That said, it would benefit from engaging “theology and the arts” scholars beyond Dutch Neo-Calvinist Hans Rookmaaker, even if sticking to Reformed-friendly thinkers. Paul Fiddes could bolster Barrs’s use of eschatology, balancing Barrs’s backward look to Eden with a forward vision of the new creation. Nicholas Wolterstorff could help Barrs distinguish artists, artworks, art-making, and art reception, and provide criteria for judging art based on context and function. Lastly, Jeremy Begbie could extend Barrs’s account of the arts as part of “the cultural mandate.”

Listening for echoes of reality in art is a worthy enterprise. Echoes of Eden is great for persuading laypersons who are wary about art from a conservative evangelical angle. My advice: use this text like a magical portal to enter the world of “theology and the arts,” and, once through, accept the guidance of authors already waiting there. Given that some of these authors’ works are demanding, I’d love to see Barrs appropriate their ideas with his approachable style. Regardless, we’d do well not only to listen for Eden’s echoes, but, like Lewis and Tolkien, to add our voices to the swell.

Jacki Price-Linnartz

Jacki Price-Linnartz
Duke Divinity School
Durham, North Carolina, USA

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