The Arts & the Christian Imagination: a book review

Clyde Kilby(1902-1986)was renowned for popularizing the works of C.S. Lewis, Tolkien and the Inklings among American evangelicals (and founding Wheaton’s Marion F Wade Center). However, he was also Wheaton’s professor of English and wrote prolifically and thoughtfully about the Arts and aesthetics.  Kilby attempted to allay evangelical suspicion of imagination and aesthetics and provide a positive vision for Christians in the Arts.Arts-and-the-Christian-Imagination

The Arts and the Christian Imagination: Essays on Art, Literature, and Aesthetics(Mount Tabor Books, 2016) edited by William Dyrness and Keith Call bring together many of these essays, some previously published, and some published here for the first time. In many ways,  conversation evangelicals were having about arts in the fifties, sixties, seventies, and eighties has moved some. There is less, general suspicion of the imagination. Today, Evangelical voices like W. David O. Taylor, Jeremy Begbie, Luci Shaw, Makoto Fujimura, Dyrness, and others, have all carried these conversations in new directions; nevertheless, Kilby provided an apology for imagination and helped set the trajectory for evangelical engagement in the arts.

The essays in this volume are divided into four sections, each with an editor’s introduction by Dyrness. Part 1—Christianity, The Arts, and Aesthetics—lays out in detail Kilby’s aesthetics. Dyrness and Call include Ninety-five pages from Kilby’s 450 page manuscript on Christianity and the arts, a previously published thirty-page booklet and a Christianity Today article, Kilby wrote that interacted with Selden Rodman’s The Eye of Man. In these pages, Kilby argues that the choice is never between aesthetics and no aesthetics, but between a good aesthetic and a bad aesthetic. Thus, he urges his fellow evangelicals toward the making of good art. He speaks glowingly about the role of imagination and lays out a Christianized-Platonic aesthetic of forms.

Part 2, The Vocation of the Artist, discusses Evangelicals in the Arts. Kilby argues in “Christianity and Culture” that Christian artists need to clarify and take a stance on their belief in culture (e.g. is Christianity coterminous with culture, or against culture, or somewhere in between). In the chapter entitled, “In Defense of Beauty,” he argues against P.T. Forsyth that the Hebrew Scripture was devoid of an aesthetic.  In “Vision, Belief, and Individuality” Kilby sets the ‘art experience’ along side the scientific ‘analytical experience,’ seeing value in both. In “Evangelicals and Human Freedom,” Kilby takes issue with the notion that the imagination is to be spurned wholesale (though he acknowledges it may get us into trouble. He closes this essay with 8 suggestions for evangelical writers and publishers:

  1. A Serious acceptance of poetry, the novel, biography, autobiography and the personal essay.
  2. More use of the parable, the parabolic, and allegory.
  3. A return to the use of symbol.
  4. Publishers demonstrating more care in accepting, editing, proofreading, illustrating and laying-out manuscripts.
  5. More willingness for publishers to ‘lift the evangelical taste.’
  6. The establishment of an evangelical writers’ colony.
  7. Week-long conferences with evangelical publishers, editors, writers, and critics that would face Christian publishing problems honestly.
  8. Engagement with classics like Aristotle’s Poetics or Plat’s Crito and Apology to find better models of ideas and style
  9.  And that as Evangelicals, we learn to poke some fun at ourselves (197-198).

Part 3, Faith and the Role of the Imagination’ has five essays which probe the value of the imagination in the Christian life (the first of which is in the form of an imagined dialogue on the nature of belief). In Part 4, Poetry, Literature and Imagination, Kilby offers his defense of Poetry and fiction (as an English professor at an Evangelical institution).

There is no question that Evangelical engagement with the Arts is more positive than the Evangelical world that Kilby addressed. However, this book has value beyond its critique of a bygone era. Kilby showed how the arts bring glory to God. His words spoke into a suspicious evangelical context and imparted a sense of wonder. Anyone who cares about the state of Christianity and the arts will find Kilby’s words instructive. I give this four stars. ★★★★

Notice of Material Connection, I received a copy of this book from Paraclete Press in exchange for my honest review

You’re My Wonderwell: a ★★★★★book review

Clyde Kilby (1902-1986) is remembered fondly by students he taught literature and writing to at Wheaton College. He is known more widely still for being an early evangelical champion of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and the Inklings. He founded Wheaton’s  Marion Wade Collection which houses manuscripts and letters from Lewis, Tolkien, Owen Barfield, Charles Williams, Dorothy Sayers, G.K. Chesterton and George Macdonald.

a-well-of-wonderIn A Well of Wonder(Mount Tabor Books, 2016), editors Loren Wilkinson & Keith Call draw together various essays and chapters which Kilby wrote about this collection of writers. The chapters of this book come from published articles from Kilby (in Christianity Today, Intervarsity Magazine, journals, student publications, etc.), book chapters and interviews. The book opens with a Poetic tribute to Kilby from Luci Shaw. Part one of the book contains Kilby’s writings on Lewis, part two Tolkien,  and part three, the Inklings and the Christian imagination. Wilkinson writes an introduction and an afterward  which showcase both the influence that Lewis et al. had on Kilby and the sense of wonder Kilby imparted to Wilkinson in his student days.

Kilby met Lewis only once in 1953, but had a deep appreciation for Lewis’ imagination and his ability to communicate difficult and deep theological truths in a accessible and winsome manner.  The essays in chapter one range from in-depth examinations of Lewis’s writings, to discussions of Lewis’ life and character. Kilby knew the Lewis corpus well. He focuses most of his comments on Lewis’s literary works (e.g. his fiction, Children’s literature, and biography, Surprised by Joy) but he appreciated the clarity of Mere Christianity, Miracles and others of Lewis’s apologetic writings.

Kilby met Tolkien later, in 1964 while visiting Oxford. The two men struck up a friendship and began writing each other.  Kilby would return to Oxford in the summer 1966 to attempt to help Tolkien prepare The Silmarillion for publication (though it became clear that Tolkien would never finish it).  There is a good longish essay about Kilby and Tolkien’s friendship and Kilby’s observations (chapter 15). Kilby takes Tolkien at his word that there is no Christian allegory undergirding his Middle Earth myths, but he does probe The Silmarillion and LOTRs for the echoes of the biblical story (as well as the Hobbit and shorter tales like Leaf by Niggle).

In the final section, there is a couple of good essays on Williams and his influence on (and differences from) Lewis and Tolkien, a good essay on Dorothy Sayers, and a couple of chapters about the formation and growth of the Wade Collection and reflections on reading and writing fiction well from a Christian perspective. I particularly appreciated Kilby’s discussion of Williams.

Kilby was an incisive reader of Lewis and Tolkien (and the others). I learned a great deal from his close readings and was charmed by his remembrances of Lewis, and especially Tolkien. These reflections are more appreciative than critical. He doesn’t explore the ambiguities of Lewis’s relationship with Mrs. Moore as later biographies would. He also has very little to say about the cooling off of Tolkien and Lewis’s friendship when Williams joined the Inklings (or later when Lewis married Joy Davidman). Kilby showed little interest in the sordid and questionable details of his heroes lives, and focused instead on glimmer of light he saw in these men and their luminous prose.

To me, the introduction and afterward are part of the fun of this book. I was a student at Regent when Wilkinson taught full time and have seen how he brings people to the well of wonder, as Kilby had done for him (and Lewis and the Inklings did for Kilby). It is the grand-daddy of Christian fantasy writing, George Macdonald, who gets the final word in Wilkinson’s afterward:

The water itself, that dances and sings, and slakes the wonderful thirst—symbol and picture of that draught for which the woman of Samaria made her prayer to Jesus . . .this water is its own self, its own truth, and is therein a truth of God. Let him who would know the truth of the Maker, become sorely athirst and drink the brook by the way—then lift up his heart—not at the moment to the maker of oxygen and hydrogen, but to the Inventor and mediator of thirst and water, that man might foresee a little of what his soul may find in God. (337).

Kilby loved this group of British Christian writers because they slaked his thirst and he saw through them to the Source. I recommend this book for anyone who shares Kilby’s appreciation for Lewis and Tolkien (and those who just don’t get it). I give it five stars. ★★★★★

I received a copy of this book from Paraclete Books in exchange for my honest review. Mount Tabor Books is an imprint of Paraclete.